Veteran journalist Neville Annibourne is a Special Person
“I would not like to experience anything like that again in my life.”
By Michael Jordan
He had never heard live firing before, so when the fusillade began, Neville Annibourne merely thought that someone was throwing stones at the six-seat Cessna aircraft in which he sat, as it prepared to take off.
It was only when the pilot screamed, and when a bullet blew out the brains of the woman standing near the airplane door that the truth hit home: Jim Jones’ followers were trying to kill him and all the occupants of the plane.
If a man’s entire life flashes before him when he faces death, surely Neville Michael Vincent Annibourne, a quiet and assuming man, would have flashed back to his humble beginnings, and how his foray into journalism had now placed him, literally, in the line of fire.
Born September 6, 1930 at Suddie, Essequibo, the only child of Olive Nelson and Lawrence Annibourne, Neville attended Johanna Cecelia Methodist School, and the affable octogenarian recounted that the journalism bug bit him early. Suddie might be just located in a rustic county to some, but he knew that there were things of interest happening there that would make good reading.
He was just 17 when he succeeded in persuading the editors at the Chronicle that he could be one of their Essequibo correspondents.
I loved journalism. “I had a calling for it. I was interested in what went on in my area and wanted to make it known. We were the forgotten place, the Cinderella County.”
His first story was about a man who got a six-month stretch for possession of bush rum.
“I was very much elated. In those days, a freelancer was paid three cents per line, so we had to stretch the story.”
Though he knew to type, the young freelancer had no typewriter. Of course, with no computers and internet in those days, stories had to be sent by telegram.
Neville came to Georgetown in the early fifties and became a staff reporter for the Chronicle, moving around mainly on his Humber bicycle to check at hospitals, police stations and wharves when the ships with tourists came in, working with other seasoned reporters like Herman Singh, Trenton Paul, Charles Chichester and Ulric Mentis. At the time, B.O. Wills was the assignment editor.
He remained there until the late sixties.
But he also had an interest in politics. He became General Secretary of the Progressive Youth Organisation (a youth arm of the People’s Progressive Party). He was also writing for Russian and Hungarian news agencies.
His political forays got him into serious trouble during the political upheavals of the fifties and early sixties. He was placed in a detention camp at Mazaruni for nine months and served four months in 1964.
“They said that we were dangerous to society.”
First time around, the detainees were kept in a two-storey building surrounded by barbed wire.
But as Annibourne remembers it, the conditions weren’t that bad, and when they weren’t up to scratch, they rebelled.
“The first time, they were giving us prison food. If it wasn’t rice and saltfish one day, it was saltfish and rice the next day.
Annibourne and the other detainees went on hunger strike. They also refused to wear the prison garb. “After the fourth day we said that we would come out naked. In no time the Commissioner of Police came and he brought a tailor and he made clothes for us.” The food also improved, they even had cigarettes and the occasional beer. The second time around, he was detained at the infamous Sibley Hall.
After leaving the Chronicle in the late sixties he went over to the Evening Post, until the Post folded. Around 1972, he was seconded the Guyana Information Service (GIS) as an Information Officer, and it was here that he had his biggest adventure.
On November 17, 1978, the then Minister of Information, Shirley Field-Ridley wanted someone to accompany US Senator Leo Ryan and other Americans to a place named Jonestown, a little known commune in the North West District.
Congressman Ryan had received disturbing reports that members of the commune were being subjected to abuse at the hands of the founder, the Reverend Jim Jones.
Neville Annibourne was appointed as liaison Officer to the foreign journalists.
“All we were told was that Leo Ryan was getting different news about what was going on and that he was going with concerned relatives to see what was going on, and to bring them (the victims) away.”
Like most Guyanese back then, Annibourne hadn’t a clue about the Reverend Jim Jones. And as far as he was aware, the only Jonestown that existed in Guyana was the community near the Demerara Harbour Bridge.
“A special plane was chartered to take us in. Two lawyers representing Jim Jones went with us.”
From the Port Kaituma airstrip, a tractor/ trailer took them to Jonestown, located some six miles away from the airstrip.
“We were met at the temple entrance by Jim Jones’s wife. She said that Jones wasn’t feeling well and she was here to welcome us.”
Like many visitors before him, he was impressed by his first sight of Jonestown.
“My first impression was that it was a city within a state. Everything was neatly laid out.
They were then taken to an auditorium at it was there that Annibourne first saw Jim Jones. The Reverend was casually dressed and his eyes were concealed by dark shades.
Even then, Annibourne said he felt no sense of foreboding. According to him, Jones did not seem upset by their presence.
“Even when the Congressman said that some people wanted to leave (Jonestown), he said that they were free to leave.”
That evening, there was a concert for the congressman, with a big band. The commune members also celebrated the news that their basketball team had won a game in Georgetown.
But when the concert ended, the Reverend Jones informed the concerned relatives and the foreign journalists that they were not allowed to stay overnight and instructed them to leave.
Congressman Ryan, his secretary Jackie Speier, the US Deputy Ambassador to Guyana, Mr. Richard Dwyer and Annibourne were allowed to remain.
The following day, the foreign journalists and the relatives of the commune members were allowed to return.
At first, Jim Jones was reluctant to be interviewed, but his lawyers eventually convinced him that it would be good for the outside world to hear his side of the story.
After the interview, the visitors were taken on a tour of the Jonestown Day Care Centre.
It was during the tour that Annibourne began to feel uneasy.
That feeling came to him when he saw some of Jones’s followers peering out at them from their little huts. The feeling of disquiet grew when some of the followers approached the visitors and said they wanted to leave Jonestown with Congressman Ryan.
Jim Jones calmly replied that he loved his followers very badly but if they wanted to leave, they could.
By now the Deputy US Ambassador was contacting the US Embassy by radio-phone and requesting that they send two more aircraft to transport the defecting members.
But as the group was entering a truck to transport them back to the Port Kaituma airstrip, one of the cult members attacked Congressman Ryan with a knife. He was restrained, but not before cutting Ryan on the neck.
On arrival at the airstrip, the Deputy Ambassador and Annibourne left to find the Port Kaituma administrator of the occurrences at Jonestown so that he could send the police in.
When they returned to the airstrip, a Guyana Airways Corporation plane had arrived. The Jonestown defectors were the first onboard after being frisked for weapons.
Annibourne entered the plane to put down his bag and seconds later, the shooting began.
The Guyanese journalist was about to exit the plane when he heard a strange sound, as if someone was throwing stones at the aircraft.
But then Captain Spence, the pilot, screamed at them to hit the floor since some of Jim Jones’ followers were shooting at them.
The warning came too late for some. Defecting cult member Patricia Parks, who was standing by the aircraft door, died from a gunshot to the head.
Peering out of the plane during a lull in the gunfire, Annibourne saw that some persons in a tractor/trailer were carrying guns. Then the gunfire started again and the journalist hit the floor.
The pilot was unable to get the Cessna in the air since the gunmen’s bullets had punctured one of the wheels. He would later learn that one of the engines had also failed.
The shooting ceased again and Annibourne looked outside and saw the tractor/trailer driving away with the gunmen.
“I couldn’t believe that such a thing was happening. I then went to the cockpit and asked Captain Spence to lean forward so that I could gain access to the door and exit the plane.
He then jumped from the plane and began running for a passenger shed about 100 yards away. On reaching the shed, Annibourne noticed Congressman Ryan and several other people lying on the ground.
Anniboure and the US Deputy Ambassador then ran to the people lying on the ground, and it was then he realised that they were all dead.
Congressman Ryan had been riddled with bullets before being shot in the face.
Don Harris, a reporter from NBC, Bob Brown, a cameraman from NBC; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and defecting Temple member, Nancy Parks, were also among the dead. Nine others, including Ryan’s aide, Jackie Speier were wounded.
Some of the defectors had fled into the jungle.
The pilot then radioed to Georgetown to alert officials at the then Timehri Airport about the tragedy.
Night had fallen, and the survivors lit up the airstrip, since they were told that members of the Guyana Defence Force were coming for them.
Annibourne said that the soldiers disembarked from the train about five miles from Port Kaituma and walked the rest of the way, since they feared that the gunmen would try to move the train tracks.
While some troops went to the airstrip, others went into Jonestown.
However, it was not until 10:00 am next day that Annibourne and the survivors were able to fly to Georgetown. The injured, including Annibourne, who had injured his knee while jumping from the plane, were treated.
The Guyanese and a foreign journalist were then taken to CID Headquarters, Eve Leary. He then left for his Regent Street, Bourda home, where he related the news to his wife, who promptly collapsed.
Annibourne confesses that he was so traumatised that it took him about four days before he could write his story.
That story, entitled “Saturday Night Horror,” appeared in the Guyana Chronicle.
The world would later learn that over 900 people, including the leader Jim Jones, had died by mass suicide and murder at the little-known jungle commune called Jonestown.
Neville Annibourne went on to graduate from the University of Guyana in 1979 with a Diploma in Public Communications.
He became a second lieutenant of the Guyana People’s Militia in 1982, eventually raising to the rank of captain.
Twice-married, and twice divorced, Mr. Annibourne, who fathered six, also served as the Regional Information Officer of Region Four from around 1982 before retiring in 2003.
He’s now 80, and walks with a slight limp, a memento of that day, 32 years ago, when he injured his right knee jumping from that plane at Port Kaituma.
“I try to take my mind off it, but now and then it comes back, especially at this time,” he says, while speaking to me a few days after another anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre had passed.
“I would not like to experience anything like that again in my life.”
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