JONESTOWN, Guyana (Reuters) - Wilfred Jupiter clears foliage from an oversized gravestone on a site deep in the Guyanese rainforest where more than 900 Americans died.
The 80-year-old is one of few locals in the remote Amazonian nation who recalls the commune set up here by Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple cult in 1974.
Four years later, the cult ended in a mass murder-suicide that was one of the largest ever losses of civilian U.S. life.
“I was shocked,” said Jupiter, who had helped clear the thick jungle so Jones and his followers could set up their self-styled Utopia.
“I worked with these people every day ... then they all killed themselves.”
Jones took his followers to this remote corner of Latin America, sandwiched between Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil, as U.S. authorities and the media began to scrutinize his activities, threatening the organization’s existence.
Just a few rusty remnants remain at the site, which Jones billed as a socialist idyll complete with hospital, workshops and dormitories for the roughly 1,000 followers.
It was left to decay after Jones persuaded almost all his members to kill themselves in the tragedy that also took the life of a U.S. congressman in November 1978.
California representative Leo Ryan had traveled there following reports members of the cult were held against their will, according to media accounts from the time. He had wanted to offer them a chance to return to the United States.
As Ryan arrived at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip with several defectors in tow, he was killed by Jones’ security guards along with four others, according to witnesses, some of whom played dead until the gunmen drove off.
“It was the most horrific thing you’ll ever see in your life,” said Gerry Gouveia, then a young army pilot who loaded Ryan’s body into a bag and flew it to the country’s coastal capital Georgetown.
Gouveia had previously flown Jones to the commune and knew it well.
“These people had gone into the jungle and cleared it to create a beautiful living space,” he said during an interview in the Guyanese capital Georgetown. “To me, it represented a kind of Utopia.”
On November 18, 1978, that dream came to an end as, according to media reports, Jones forced followers to drink cyanide-laced “Flavor Aid” in a “revolutionary suicide” that Jones had forced them to rehearse many times before.
Those who resisted were shot or stabbed to death, according to the reports.
Local resident Carlton Daniels was present as U.S. troops came to collect the decaying bodies three days later.
“You can tell the (ethnicity) of people from the texture of their hair,” said Daniels, 65, as he looked down at the ground where he had seen the bodies, their faces unrecognizable due to the effects of cyanide poisoning.
“The skin was transparent and covered in a grey fluid. Their features weren’t there.”
In all, according to U.S. authorities, 918 people died that day, 909 in Jonestown, five at the landing strip and a family of four in the country’s capital Georgetown, having received orders to commit suicide.
Cheap corrugated plastic signs poke out of the jungle now in a feeble attempt to show the site’s layout, pointing out the playground, kitchen and hospital. Despite only having been erected two years ago by local authorities, they are in tatters as the jungle rapidly takes over.
The memorial that Jupiter so fondly clears was built in 2009 though its white paint is already peeling under a relentless sun.
The site is now unrecognizable as that of a massacre.
“It would be nice to remind people of the dangers of cults,” said Daniels. “You have to be more careful when you enter these organizations. They tell you one part of it but you’ve got to think for yourself and see if the truth is there.”