JONESTOWN, Guyana — In 10-year-old photographs, the ground around the Jonestown pavilion is covered with bodies of men, women and children. More than 900 people had received a fatal potion of poison in Jim Jones' grisly ritual of suicide and murder.
Today, the infamous spot is covered with a dense mat of green weeds, flanked by a large bougainvillea bush that blooms in a cascade of bright purple. Little remains of the pavilion. Only three of its many support poles still stand to mark the spot. Charred timbers and planks lie scattered under the tangle of waist-high weeds, rotting on the moist tropical soil.
Gone is the ceremonial stage where Jim Jones worked his dark charisma; gone his priestly throne and the sign that warned his followers: "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it."
Then an American communal experiment in the tropical wilderness of South America, Jonestown ended in horror on Nov. 18, 1978. Now an abandoned historical site in the Guyanese jungle, Jonestown is fading away under a mantle of weeds, brush and decay.
The Guyanese government appears content to let time and isolation dim the enormity that happened here. Authorities are doing nothing to preserve what little is left of the former settlement.
No Guyanese investigation was ever made into the rise and fall of Jonestown and its implications for this former British colony on the Caribbean's southeastern edge. Officials here have preferred to dismiss the subject, calling Jonestown an American problem.
For years, the Guyanese government gave no cooperation to outsiders who wished to come and see the hard-to-reach site in the country's remote northern hinterlands. Only recently has the Ministry of Information helped to arrange visits when requested by foreigners.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, several American journalists came for a look. They found the 300 acres of once-productive land overgrown with weeds and brush. It is a scene of silent desolation, unclaimed either by man or by the tropical forest that forms a high wall around it.
Many fruit trees are dead or dying for want of cultivation and care. Others produce bananas, oranges and tangerines that fall unharvested on the ground. Palms that were just getting started when Jonestown died now rise tall over the wasted land.
Of nearly 100 wooden buildings that once housed a bustling community, none is left standing. Broken machinery, vehicle carcasses and other metal remnants have turned crumbly with rust.
Residents of Port Kaituma, an impoverished town on a jungle river 7 miles from Jonestown, say the abandoned settlement burned down in a brush fire sometime after 1983. What year the fire took place was not clear from interviews, but everyone seemed to agree that it was not caused by arson.
"Just dry grass got fire," said Laurence Inverary, 31, a former policeman.
In 1980, Inverary said, he lived in Jonestown as a police guard for government livestock that used to graze the clearings. But no farmers have ever tried to resettle the land, he said. Asked why, he hesitated before responding, "They might be afraid."
Mortimer Kansinally, a policeman in Port Kaituma, confirmed the lingering fear.
"From the incident, everybody afraid of the old place," said Kansinally, 40. "They don't know if things still about." He said some people imagine that Jonestown is haunted by \o7 jumbies\f7 --evil spirits in Caribbean folklore.
Kansinally, a slightly built man with a gold tooth and a red stocking cap, said he was at the Port Kaituma airstrip in 1978 when the Jonestown nightmare began.
Rep. Leo Ryan, a Northern California congressman, had come to Jonestown on Nov. 17 to investigate allegations that members of Jones' Peoples Temple were being kept here against their will. Ryan was accompanied by American journalists, members of his staff and relatives of temple members.
The group spent the night in the settlement, and as it prepared to leave the next day, more than a dozen residents said they wanted to defect. Jones had been angered by previous defections, which he described as part of a conspiracy to destroy his tight-knit organization. Tension was high in Jonestown as Ryan prepared to leave in a truck on Nov. 18. A temple member grabbed the congressman and briefly held a knife to his throat, but Ryan was not hurt.
Later, however, a death squad from Jonestown opened fire on the group at the Port Kaituma airstrip.
Keith Thorne, 52, a shopkeeper in Port Kaituma, said he saw the group gunned down.
"They were all, first, around the plane, then started wild shooting," Thorne recalled. Ryan and four other people were killed. Ten were wounded.
"It was an awful sight to see," said policeman Kansinally.
Called for Mass Suicide