Three charred poles rising from a thicket are all that remain of the jungle pavilion where the Rev. Jim Jones led more than 900 Americans to their death in a macabre ritual 10 years ago.
The Jonestown suicide-massacre still haunts this impoverished land of 780,000 on the northern coast of South America, and its image abroad may be permanently tainted by one of history's most bizarre disasters."Once you leave the shores of Guyana, that's the first thing you have to face," said Alice Thomas, an editor for the independent newspaper Stabroek News. "Guyana and Jonestown go together."
Many Guyanese regard Jones' San Francisco-based Peoples Temple as an American aberration that had nothing to do with Guyana other than its location. Successive governments have disassociated themselves from the affair.
"It's really hard for us to explain what motivated 900 Americans to take their lives," said Patrick Denny, a government spokesman. "If the media didn't show any interest, we wouldn't have remembered that it was 10 years" since the tragedy.
But Capt. Gerry Gouviea, 32, clearly recalls the carnage wrought by Jones on Nov. 18, 1978, when the cult leader urged his disciples to drink grape-flavored punch laced with potassium cyanide. Most were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by security guards.
In all, 913 people, including Jones, died. He was found with a bullet wound in the head. It is is not known whether he was shot or committed suicide.
A second lieutenant in Guyana's air force at the time, Gouviea went in a few days later to help recover bodies for burial in the United States. Most lay at the roofed pavilion where Jones held communal meetings and twice-monthly suicide drills known as "White Nights."
"The magnitude of the thing was so great that you were hoping it was going to just rewind (like a video) and everybody was going to get up and everything was going to be all right," Gouviea said.
"I remember looking at the children and feeling pity and wondering who were the adults who did this thing."
The massacre occurred hours after Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., three newsmen and a Temple defector were shot to death in an ambush at nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. Eleven people, including Richard Dwyer, a U.S. diplomat in Guyana, were wounded.
Ryan had flown to Guyana to investigate reports that Jones was abusing his followers.
Jonestown ranged over 300 acres carved from dense tropical rain forest 140 miles from Georgetown, the capital. Dozens of cottages, workshops and dormitories sat in tidy rows.
Pursuing the ideals of socialism and racial harmony, Jones and his 950 or so disciples - 70 percent of them black, 25 percent white and the rest mulatto, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian - cultivated a citrus grove and vegetable garden, raised chickens and pigs, made their own shoes, educated their children, and cared for the old and sick.
Now, Jonestown has all but vanished, stripped by villagers and consumed by a fire a few years ago.
The site is littered with artifacts: a rusted filing cabinet where Jones' house used to be; a small organ; a truck, crane and trailer; lime, orange and grapefruit trees still bearing fruit.
Maj. Gen. Norman McLean, head of Guyana's armed forces, said the army occupied the former commune in 1981 and tried to keep it going as an agriculture cooperative with 200 sheep.
But superstitious villagers refused to work there, he said.
"Just the thought of 900 people out there and everybody dying - it's horrifying," the general said. "That smell lingered for more than a year, the smell of death."
Eventually, the army abandoned the site to the jungle.
Under pressure from allegations of misconduct, Jones moved most of his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, in 1977. The cult leader was obsessed with fear of nuclear war and believed Guyana would be safe.
He also believed he would be safe from what he perceived as media and police persecution.
Rev. Andrew Morrison, who has extensive files on the Jonestown affair, said Jones gave the late socialist President Forbes Burnham financial and political support.
"They came and joined in May Day parades and that sort of thing," he said.