1st monument at Guyana's Jonestown suicide site

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2009 1:23 PM

It has taken more than 30 years, but the government of Guyana has erected a memorial plaque at the site of the Jonestown cult massacre, a dark episode the South American country had long sought to downplay.

A simple, white stone plaque was unveiled with little fanfare Wednesday at the jungle clearing where more than 900 members of the cult led by the American preacher Jim Jones died in a night of mass murder and suicide on Nov. 18, 1978.

The government of Guyana had resisted creating a memorial, believing it would be a distasteful reminder of an incident that brought a grim fame to the impoverished and sparsely populated former British colony. But officials relented for this year's anniversary of the event.

"We think the time is now ripe for some sort of memorial to remember those who died as 31 years have passed and the wound is not so raw," said Indranauth Haralsingh, the director of the Guyana Tourism Authority. "There should be something to remember them as people do come."

Local officials in Port Kaituma, the town nearest the site, have sought to develop the former site of the cult for tourism, but Haralsingh said the government had no immediate plans to do so.

The government gave no advance notice of the unveiling ceremony, issuing a statement only after it was over. Those in attendance included Tourism Minister Manniram Prashad and Karen Williams, the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy.

The state run news agency, GINA, quoted Williams as saying that Guyana had to accept that it would forever be linked with the tragedy.

"I hope that this simple and very reverent service today and monument will serve to help heal those wounds in both of our nations," she said.

The plaque says only, "In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy, November 18, 1978, Jonestown, Guyana." It is about 25 minutes from Port Kaituna at the edge of the compound that the cult had officially named People's Temple Agricultural Project.

Jones ordered his followers, mostly Americans, to commit suicide. More than 900 members drank cyanide-laced, grape-flavored punch while others were shot by guards loyal to the cult leader.

The carnage occurred after 15 members defected during California Rep. Leo Ryan's fact-finding mission to Jonestown. Temple gunmen killed Ryan, three journalists and a defector at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

A monument to the victims was erected last year in Oakland, California, where more than 400 unidentified and unclaimed bodies from the tragedy are buried in a mass grave.