Local tour operator Roraima Tours has announced it is now offering regularised visits to the site of the 1978 Jonestown tragedy which claimed the lives of 914 Americans 38 years ago.The mass murder and suicide took place in the western section of this South American Republic, near neighbouring Venezuela where an American religious leader, Reverend Jim Jones, set up his People’s Temple Church bringing with him hundreds of American followers who put their faith and trust in him.
The chief executive officer of the Roraima Group of Companies, Captain Gerry Gouveia, whose company launched the programme of visits to the site of the tragedy, was among the first Guyanese to fly into the area hours after reports reached the capital that visiting United States Congressman Leo Ryan and his team which included members of the American media, had been attacked by gunmen at the Port Kaituma Airstrip as the aircraft on which they were aboard was about to be airborne.
Gouveia, then a pilot with the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) said that the decision to offer visits to what remains of the area is based on the need for people with varying interests, including the families of victims, to have an opportunity to see first hand the location of this historic tragedy and to, where necessary, help them achieve closure.
The Government of Guyana has erected a monument at the entrance to the Jonestown compound to pay tribute to the victims of the tragedy, the majority of whom were forced at gunpoint by Jones fanatics to drink a cyanide-laced concoction.
According to Gouveia, his Roraima Tours company will soon hold a simple ceremony to routinise his company’s periodic flights to Jonestown, more specifically, to the monument erected to honour the victims of the tragedy.
“Jonestown was a sobering moment in our country’s history. Roraima Airways is deliberately not selling this as any sort of tourism initiative. Unpleasant as it was, Jonestown is history and people are a part of history. We will take those people with varied interests to the site of that monument. I believe I owe it to people like Jackie Speier and to the victims of Jonestown to oversee this one myself,” he said.
It is a commitment that has an underpinning of conviction.
Earlier this year, in June, Gouveia was in Washington, DC for Caribbean Legislative Week, part of the celebration of Caribbean Heritage Month during which he took the opportunity to pay a courtesy call on Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who back in 1978 served as an assistant to Congressman Ryan and was critically wounded during the melee at the Port Kaituma Airstrip. Gouveia and his team of Guyanese soldiers rescued Speier and flew her to the international airport at Timehri where a US military aircraft awaited the arrival of the injured survivors.
During their June interaction in Speier’s office on Capitol Hill, the two emotionally exchanged memories of the morning of Sunday, November 19, 1978 with the Congresswoman presenting Gouveia with an autographed copy of her book “This is not the Life I Ordered”. It is widely believed that it is this encounter that inspired Gouveia to introduce these regular visits to Jonestown which he will himself conduct for visitors.
Ironically, Gouveia’s announcement that Roraima Airways will now be regularising its flights to Port Kaituma from whence visitors will make their way to the site of Jonestown coincides with increasingly assertive pronouncements from the private sector regarding the need to aggressively market the country abroad.
Gouveia said that Jonestown is not about marketing Guyana, it is about “reminding ourselves and the rest of the world of the Jonestown tragedy and the lessons that it teaches. Perhaps there is an example there from which Guyana can learn, going forward. The rest of the world will, of course, have its own separate interest”.