Nov 18, 2008 News
30 years later, through the eyes of a Guyanese
“Guyana is not to be blamed for this. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We have no reason to want to hide Jonestown. It happened.”
By Gary Eleazar
Guyana has the responsibility to mankind to ensure that the memory and lessons learnt from what is now the crime of the century are forever preserved so as to prevent them from ever happening again.
This is according to Captain Gerry Gouveia, who was among the first to witness the carnage that is now remembered simply as the Jonestown Massacre.
During a recent interview with Kaieteur News, he said that it is incumbent on Guyana to establish a memorial were people could go and pay their respects to those that perished on that fateful day—November 18, 1978.
Gouveia noted that the location could also be used as a reference point for historians, students, “or people who just want to see what happens when an ultimate leader is allowed to foster and fester.”
He noted that Jonestown represents the greatest self-inflicted tragedy. “And I don’t believe that we could allow it to disappear.”
Gouveia also noted that the memory of Jonestown must live, because it was a demonstration of the disease that is human. “It represents the effects of the disease of ultimate power by any one man.”
He pointed to a sign that was hung above the dead body of Jim Jones which read, “Lest we forget the past we are condemned to repeat it.”
“We must always be on our guard against ultimate leaders…leaders who come as prophets…leaders who come as all-wise and glorifying themselves.”
He posited that all the blame for the Jonestown Massacre cannot be laid squarely at the feet of Jim Jones. Members of the People’s Temple, the cult/organisation that Jones created, are partially to blame, in that they gave Jones the authority over them and worshipped him; glorified enough to give him the disease of power that corrupted him.
According to Gouveia, there was an impression among some that there was some corrupt motive that allowed Jones to set up his organisation in the dense jungle in Guyana, but he said this is far from the truth.
Gouveia described the situation as a win-win situation, in that what Jones proposed was in sync with the national strategy at the time. The development of interior areas was the responsibility of the Guyana National Service.
What made the settlement even more enticing to Guyana was to have Americans settling in what was a highly disputed area, namely Essequibo.
There was also the fact that economic hard times had set in on the community of Port Kaituma, given that the nearby manganese mine which was at Mathews Ridge had closed down. “So when Jonestown came, it breathed new life into Port Kaituma.”
Gouveia recalled his first encounter with members of the People’s Temple during a trip to Matthews Ridge.
He said that it was during his stint in the National Service. He was waiting for a boat to transport him from Mabaruma to Port Kaituma, and he observed several persons in a trawler-like boat heading in and he asked to hitch a ride with them.
He added that on the boat there was a young man who was speaking excessively about Jonestown. “What they were doing in Guyana…about Father Jones…he was deliriously happy and excited about the things they were doing at Jonestown.”
When asked if, on looking back to what transpired in 1978, it might have been a façade, Gouveia said that he truly believed that in the beginning life was wonderful at Jonestown.
He noted that when he did visit that settlement some time later, it was an impressive site; people seemed genuinely happy with life at Jonestown. “I found the place to be fascinating…I thought to myself, this is utopia…the place was clean.”
Gouveia recalled that after he acquired his pilot’s license, he would fly several persons into Port Kaituma who were destined for Jonestown. “I even flew in Jim Jones a few times.”
“Remember this one time this guy came up and he had on a dark shades, but he was very, very dignified, very quiet; was not arrogant or aggressive in any way…He was very humble…His people around him treated him like royalty.”
Gouveia recalled that some three months prior to November 18, 1978, he received a call at about midnight to fly an emergency flight out from Port Kaituma.
He noted that when he arrived at the small airstrip, there were two bodies on the runway all bloodied and bruised. He was informed that the two were filling a tire with air when it exploded.
According to Gouveia, he later learnt that the two men were trying to escape from Jonestown, but were caught and beaten excessively, to the point that they had to be airlifted to Georgetown for medical treatment.
This, Gouveia recalled, might have been a sign of the beginning of the end.
He noted that, some time before the fateful day, a Guyana Defence Force aircraft was damaged on the runway; so at the time of the shooting on the airfield, there were ranks on the airstrip repairing the aircraft who were armed.
According to Gouveia there was word that US Congressman Leo Ryan was coming in, and there were some rumours that all may not have been well at Jonestown.
When the shooting happened, there were the ranks on the airstrip a short distance away. Most of them immediately reached for their weapons, but the commanding officer restrained them.
After the multiple killings and suicides, troops were flown in the very night to Matthews Ridge, and they trekked to Port Kaituma to secure the runway.
He noted that at some time around 4:00am on Sunday 19, 1978, he received a call to fly into Port Kaituma.
According to Gouveia, apart from the ranks who were already flown in, they were the first on the scene “When we landed all the bodies were still there on the ground.”
He noted that at that time they did not know the magnitude of the killings, and as such they did not fly over Jonestown. They were aware that the men in Jonestown were armed and may have shot at the aircraft.
According to Gouveia, the army ranks had also secured the airstrip because they were of the opinion that the gunmen would have returned to finish the job.
“What we did was to first fly out the wounded people – among them Jackie Speirs who is now a US Congresswoman”
Gouveia added that it was amazing that by the time they returned to Timehri it was already transformed into a US military base. “They had already flown in huge aircraft.”
It was a US Congressman who had been shot. Ryan became the first, and to date only, US Congressman to be killed on foreign soil.
He noted that when he flew back into Port Kaituma to recover the body, persons were hesitant to pick up the body. “I picked up the body and helped to place him into a body bag….we were all numb…it was surreal…what was disappointing was the fact that our soldiers did not intervene.”
The next day, according to Gouveia, troops were sent in to Jonestown, which was some six miles away, on a reconnaissance mission, pointing out that there were rumours that something was amiss about life in Jonestown.
“I remember standing on the runway and hearing the Colonel briefing the troops to be very careful, given that they would not know who was friend or foe…It was very late that evening when the word came in of what they found.”
He added that the following day a helicopter was flown in. “And then I saw the horror.”
He described the scene as surreal, moreso given that he had known a lot of the persons.
“It was very sad…It was as if it was not real…It was like walking in the middle of a movie.”
Captain Gouveia noted, that at the time, the historical significance of what had transpired did not sink in. “We knew it was terrible.”
It was not until the international media flooded Guyana to cover the horrific incident that it began to sink in, according to Gouveia.
“There was the smell of death…there was a pungent smell in the air…the children, it was the children that was most moving to see; that was rough,” said Gouveia in a ruefully reflective tone.
“Guyana is not to be blamed for this. We have nothing to be ashamed of about Jonestown; we have no reason to want to hide Jonestown. It happened. It was not our soldiers that murdered those people. Guyana stretched out a helping hand to a people that were looking for a new kind of life, a new utopia…we must not be ashamed about it.”
Guyanese you are being prostituted by your politicians!
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