Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown Holocaust. More than 900 Americans died on Guyanese soil after committing what is believed to be a mass murder-suicide. They were forced/coerced into drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
Forty years onwards, Guyana still carries the shame of what took place. Jonestown was part of the police-state which was created by the Forbes Burnham administration. Its existence was kept secret from most Guyanese who, when the holocaust occurred, questioned where exactly in Guyana it was located.
Two days after the holocaust (this is how the American Embassy in Guyana described the event in their diplomatic correspondence), a top local foreign service official informed the Embassy that the Guyana Defence Force had gone into the area and seen about 300-400 persons dead.
Either the GDF had a problem estimating the numbers of dead they saw, or there was an attempt at misleading the Americans. It was later discovered that more than 900 persons lay lead at Jonestown.
Forbes Burnham, soon after learning about the holocaust, established a Task Force headed by Hamilton Green to deal with the problem. A number of senior government officials were part of this Task Force and some of them are still alive and therefore would be able to provide information on that period.
A number of US passports were recovered from Jonestown and handed over to the police. The United States Embassy was interested in determining the identity of those who died in the massacre and made a plea to one Task Force member to have the passports returned.
There have long been rumours of certain persons, including military personnel, becoming vastly rich by virtue of things which they removed from Jonestown, including off the cadavers. But there has never been any evidence to support these rumours.
The PNC, weeks after the Jonestown Holocaust, sought to blame the United States, alleging an international conspiracy to ensure the failure of the agricultural commune. But tapes found at the site, and which are in possession of the United States government, revealed that government officials benefitted from Jonestown, including through sexual favours. The transcripts of these tapes have been declassified and now form part of the public record.
The Congressional Inquiry into Jonestown received testimony of allegations of sexual favours being provided by one female member to a senior, overseas-based Guyanese diplomat. The female reportedly taped the sexual liaisons with the official and passed these on to Jones, who it is said, turned it over to government officials
The Report of the Congressional Inquiry found evidence of a strong working relationship between the People’s Temple and some officials of the Government of Guyana. The commune was granted special privileges which allowed it to import large sums of money and guns.
The government of Guyana did not launch any inquiry into the holocaust. In fact, the Congressional Inquiry was promised cooperation but received very little, leaving it to conclude that much more could have been understood about Jonestown had the congressional inquiry team been able to interview government officials.
The ‘Jonestown tapes’ are damning on officials of the PNC government. They reveal the extent of patronage and favours which were enjoyed by high-level government officials.
In the end, the Jonestown Holocaust would cost Ptolemy Reid his job. Despite Reid being the loyal deputy of Forbes Burnham for years, Burnham was forced to let him go because of what the Congressional Report found about Reid’s dealings with the commune.
There are still many unanswered questions, including what happened to the money which the People’s Temple Commune had in the Guyana National Cooperative Bank. There are still questions also about who got rich off of Jonestown and what happened to the gold, diamonds, guns and foreign currency which Jones was believed to have had stashed at the commune.
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