Fiction: Breaking news

Geeta Outar-Sirjoo

Geeta Outar-Sirjoo


Hundreds died in mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. November 19th, 1978. That was the headline news in all the newspaper about Jim Jones and his cult, and the massacre in Guyana. The news shook every citizen in our little South American country. It was the first time most citizens learned of Jim Jones and a place called Jonestown in Lethem, Guyana. At that time the story wasn’t clear about what led 900 and more people to commit suicide which included men, women and children.

The images that followed the brief story were enough to have a traumatic impact on anyone’s life, especially me, not yet in my teens at that time. They definitely left a lasting imprint on my mind.

The newspapers were the most reliable way to get every bit of news that came out of the northwest district of Region 9.  My young mind was confused because of conflicting stories the different newspapers carried. Even now I am still not clear how many people died at Jonestown. When the news broke, it was said that 400 plus people died, but as the days passed the count kept climbing. To date it reads more than 900.

It all started back in the year 1973-1974, when Jones was preparing his compound in Guyana under the pretext of agriculture. The People’s National Congress - PNC government was in control.

Jones, the mastermind behind the cult, whose ministry, started in the 1960’s in Indianapolis by him and his wife, was called The People’s Temple. By the 1970s he had other branches in different states in America. He also had close affiliation with other rebellious groups such as, all who called themselves ‘god’. Jim Jones had a mass following in California. He manipulated his followers by doing much PR work in the name of humanity especially in poor black communities. There he brainwashed them into thinking that he, Jones, would protect them in an event such as a nuclear disaster which was sure to happen someday soon. The people flocked to him! They worshipped him and truly believed that he was the prophet as he called himself. But then like everything evil, the truth started to peep through like sunlight. The press began to ask questions and top-ranking authorities got interested in Jim Jones and his business. They discovered that Jones, along with his wife, was conning the members to sign over their hard earn properties and belongings to the Peoples Temple. Jones was beginning to feel uncomfortable California. It was time to make use of his investment in Guyana.

My mind was too young and sheltered to fully comprehend everything and dad often explained in such a way that all the gory details were edited but the images in the newspaper, like I said earlier, had a great impact on my mind, then and even now.

Jim Jones had started attracting the attention of the authorities in the United States of America and before further ado, he gathered hundreds of followers and headed to Guyana to a rural place in the hinterlands, a place he called Jones Town-The Peoples Temple Agriculture Project.  Even as my dad explained, I asked, why would people from America want to come to Guyana when everyone in Guyana wants to leave this country for a better life in America?  To this day I still wonder why Jim Jones was given land in that rural part of the country by the then government. I still ask, wasn’t there a red flag of warming somewhere along the lines?

A few months after the massacre, a man called himself Bobby, scared out of his wits happened to be in our neighbourhood in the countryside far away from Jonestown. He claimed he was one of the men who escaped the gruesome night and that if he was ever found, they would kill him. He recounted what happened that night, the night they called:

 

THE LAST WHITE NIGHT

 

The rapid gunfire ceased momentarily on that humid night. The desolate cries of infants grew with each passing minute as they vomited repeatedly on the bare grass of the grounds of the People’s Temple. The bitter taste of cyanide and Flavour-Aid- blended in disguise of a cocktail was quickly eating away at their stomach, women were wishing for death to arrive quickly. And then the big gun barked again and a volley of bullets ripped through the air, sending the once faithful cult members in a desperate bid to escape at the far left of the pavilion. Men, women and children fell like weeds after a scythe had passed.

A bullet had hit Bobby at an angle and cut a deep wound like a laceration from a sharp blade along his jaw before penetrating his ear and exiting at the back of his head. That much was evident in him. The damage was extensive and grave. In the same volley of gunfire one of the henchmen lurching on the perimeter of the square was shot through the heart by his companion. He died instantly. Bobby collided and fell on top of him.

The charismatic leader of the People’s Temple cult, James Warren Jones continued his rambling call to members to give their lives to the greater “cause” and escape the atrocities of this inhumane world. I have tried my very best to give you a good life. In spite of all, I have tried. Just a handful of people with their lies, have made our lives impossible. If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace… step over quietly, because we’re not committing suicide-it’s a revolutionary act…” Jones seemed dazed and possessed by a demon but yet calm and controlling as the horror unfolded before him. “But Father, I am afraid to die!” shouted one woman.

“You are not going to die, you will live. If you trust me, then you trust God, and if I say you’re not going to die, then you’re not ging to die!” Jones insisted.

“Dad, look at the babies! They are dying! At least let them live! They deserve to live,” The woman pleaded.

Jones had demanded that he be addressed that way by the membership of almost 1200 people.

“They don’t deserve much more. They deserve peace. The best testimony we can give is to leave this goddamn world” stated Jones matter-of-factly.

“Oh Dad, please get some medication for us.”

 “Don’t be afraid to die and you would need no medication. Simple-it is that simple.”

“If it is our lives we have to give, then we’re ready, Dad,” one man and others commented.

Using the public address system, Jim Jones proceeded with his incessant calls to commit suicide and urged the people to get over with. Astonishingly, there were many who were heeding the call and voluntarily approached the vat where the deadly concoction was handed out in disposable cups. Obviously, there were those that refused. The ones who refused were quickly injected with the potion by a vicious stab in the back. The babies were mainly the victims of the method.

“Please, for God’s sake, let’s get on with it…This is a voluntary suicide. It is not a self-destructive suicide; this is for a cause.” Jones continued in a tone to understate the devious act and infused the name of God in the deception of his people.

Bobby was bleeding profusely from the laceration. He had lost a lot of blood but he was conscious. All around him the babies and women were wailing; entire families hugged together were falling like leaves in an autumn wind. It was known to Bobby that there were problems in Jonestown. Back then, Bobby was in total agreement with his leader’s decision to subject the community to the ultimate death by drinking the cocktail believing that only the sinners would be subjected to death and nothing would happen to the faithful. But then Bobby believed that no one would die because they had already drunk the cocktail several times. Bobby did not anticipate injections and guns.

He laid straight like a log but his eyes roamed and absorbed his surroundings. He was aware that he could move his fingers although he lacked the immediate strength to move his whole body. Earlier on that faithful night, one of Jones lieutenant had tried to talk some sense into his leader and another one of his lieutenants had shot him point blank leaving him to suffer and die not very far from the main tent where Bobby laid. Bobby opened his eyes slowly and saw the Israeli made UZI that the lieutenant carried, was lying a few inches away. The firearm was so close-yet it was out of his reach. He closed his eyes again and tried to summon his remaining energy to get the weapon. He felt self-abhorrent for having been so consumed in the cult and an equal hatred for the man whose voice now reverberated in his head. Like a wounded lion, he sensed the black rage and icy control take over and felt the tremor of fury wracked at him like an epiphany.  

So many people had already died- so many more were still going to die! There was no escape! It was well planned and rehearsed conscientiously to hone the effect of complete annihilation. This was surrealistic. How could this possibly be? They had been through the drills before-the so called ‘White Nights’ but Bobby had thought that the exercise was to test the faith and trust of the members of Father Jones. Having drunk the beverage which they were told, had contained poison on other occasions and nothing happened, they had laughed and joked about it afterwards. For the blind faithful it strengthened their faith in Jim Jones. Something had suddenly clicked as Bobby was standing queued with the hundreds of others to be administered the “medication” his leader had prescribed. It was contained in a barrel cut in half like always. Bobby realised that this time was different from the others when they were given the cocktail called medication. He didn’t want to die, and in that moment, he made a dash for his freedom. It was too late he realised now as his condition rapidly deteriorated. He should have left earlier when the US Congressman Leo J. Ryan had asked who wanted to leave with him when he departed for about forty-five minutes ago. That was his chance but he had also noticed the four armed and trusted guards of Jones, who, in a tractor-drawn trailer, had pursued Ryan’s party which had accompanied him from the United States to investigate Jonestown. Jones aversion for Ryan and his party was evident. Soon after Bobby heard gunshots coming from the airstrip, he could have surmised what had actually happened. His concept of loyalty and kinship to Dad and the People’s Temple, however, had kept from defecting.

This seemed to be his worst nightmare and the excruciating pain he has ever had. The constant screams and dropping of bodies were a stark and horrific reminder of the bizarre happenings.

He recalled when he was invited by Jones to his cabin was convinced that there was nothing wrong to be involved in homosexual activities with him. Not once had the thought occurred to him before that he could have degenerated to such lows but his belief went beyond the extent of faith. Hence, he was persuaded that it was fine to serve his master in sexual conduct as would his wife served him. With infantile docility, Bobby subjected himself to the will of his master who skilfully won over the immediate guilt he experienced afterwards on that first occasion in his grand style of persuasion.

On his master’s word, he had shared his Caucasian wife with a fellow member of afro-descent in the name of racial integration and harmony in the People’s Temple. When Jane had protested his irrational behaviour, Jones himself had threatened her that noncompliance with his rules would result in her being placed in a wooden box for a couple of days without food or water. Castigation for disobedience was strictly meted out to rebellious member in that manner.

For years Bobby had been an ardent follower from back in the days when the church was first established in San Francisco, California. He had migrated willingly to this remote patch in the Guyana jungle when asked by Father Jones. Such was his fervent belief in the “Cause” that he abandoned his home and friends to fanatically follow the path Jones had predicted.

Bobby could distinctly hear that voice again which had mesmerized and worked a spell over him. Now it had the opposite effect and fortified the odium he harboured. Resentment boiled in him and his lips trembled with anger. Realization struck home and he felt his soul bare and parted. Everything he had ever owned belonged to the temple and the Cause- personal property, savings, social security checks, everything. It has now reached the point of no return.

“We must die with dignity. Hurry, hurry, hurry. We must hurry. Stop the hysterics. Death is a million times more preferable than spending more time in this life,” Jones prodded on. He was in his chair beside the pulpit from which he relayed his chosen pieces of news gathered from the outside world. That was one of the techniques he used effectively to control the minds of his followers. Having indoctrinated the membership of the principles of the church, he gradually began to destabilize their belief that death was to be feared and challenged. Thereby he sought to introduce the possibility of a catastrophic ending of the church in which only he would be able to save them and this is the way it should unfold.

Above his head hung a sign which read ‘Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat’. It’s a pity that such words could be inscribed by such a cruel individual, Bobby thought. Undoubtedly, his was a brilliant mind and with the guile he employed, had managed to convince hundreds of followers that he was Christ reincarnated.

Bobby had to time the moment precisely, but he was determined to get Jim Jones before he succumbed to his mortal wounds. Bobby felt no fear of death, just the cold hard feeling in the pit of his stomach of what he has to do. It was strange that he could be so decisive about killing another human being and now relished in the idea. The killing instinct clouded his mind and his central focus was on Jim Jones.

Bobby opened his eyes again and stared at the weapon.  Without moving his head to attract attention, he stole a glimpse at the guard ahead of him who occupied himself by stroking persons with the barrel of his gun who were falling out of line. With great effort he carefully rolled himself off the corpse. The movement caused him blurred vision and his head swam. He knew that his chances of survival were very slim.

Reaching the weapon, he clutched and cradled it tightly. He clumsily rolled over again, effectively concealing the weapon below him. It may be a long wait and he must muster all his energy to stay alive. The feeling of weakness was very pronounced but anger and abasement were factors which created the driving force to complete his final act. Bobby calculated that he may only have a minimal number of shots remaining, hopeful enough to take down his target. He was using the rapid-firing UZI for the first time. The henchmen were too close not to attract their attention. He could hear the heavy footsteps for the nearest one as he approached.  

Bobby lay still with his face down to the green turf; his head turned slightly to the right and heard the scarlet droplets fall with the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil. Pausing in his breathing, Bobby pretended he was dead. Would he be discovered and shot in the back? It seemed like an eternity for the guard to pass him and Bobby could actually smell the leather hide boots as he ambled by. He was tempted to take his shot now but there was constant movement between where he laid and the platform where Reverend Jones sat. Throngs of people were staggering as if in a worldly drunkenness before they collapsed as the cyanide took effect. The agonising screams emanating from the convulsing bodies and the pungent smell of vomit filled the atmosphere as horror evolved. Undaunted, there was no letting up on the scores of persons in the queue to the poison. The dead were piling up; some were placed on top of each other even before they took their last breath. All around the space in the square, bodies laid writhing in pain until their final breath. 

“If only you knew what was awaiting us, you’d wish that this day had come earlier.” Jones incessant voice penetrated the constant screams and chaos. “We have been so terribly betrayed by some traitors. We cannot turn back now. There is no turning back!”

So masterfully he used his influence garnered from prior commitments that gradually with his increased demands, he got them closer to realise the enactment of the final ritual. The elite Planning Committee should be congratulated for having done such an excellent job.

Time was running out and Bobby knew he couldn’t afford to wait any longer. As the screaming dissipated, he opened one eye and peered at Jones. His face appeared stoical with his thick dark lenses as usual, his hands resting on the arms of the chair as he slouched in a relaxed position.  He was almost certain that his leader had decided his own faith already-to wait and made sure everybody was dead before making his escape with his trusted ones.

Jones wasn’t more than twenty meters away from Bobby. Even though he had never fired an UZI before and he had little practise with a shotgun, he hoped to achieve his objective.  Regardless of the blood not coagulating fast enough to stem the flow which resulted in draining his energy, he meticulously rehearsed the action in his mind.

A push on his left turned his body on one side, then brace to support his weight on his elbow to balance the stock, index finger on the trigger, his right hand on the barrel to bear direction. His intention to take quick aim and fire as fast he can. Suddenly another henchman shuffled by slowly and he had to withhold. It was a monumental task but his desire for vengeance created a surge in his willpower and he was about to launch his attack again.

“This is the only way for us to be together again in the kingdom of god. What better way to depart this misery and live in glory forever than…,” The first volley of shots flew over his head, the second whistled past his nose. Jones turned unperturbed by being shot at. Bobby hesitated for just a split of a second for a better aim which struck Jones in his neck, penetrating deep and rapturing his carotid vein. His head swayed to one side, partially dislodging the heavy glasses which remained hanging loosely from behind one ear and his body fell half way out of his throne.

The weapon felt heavy in his hands and Bobby was trying clumsily for his next shot to make sure his feat was accomplished when he felt a burning of hot led and a numbness flooding his body. He turned and allowed six shots to pump into the henchman’s chest, pitched him backwards, his arms flung wide open. He was not yet dead, Bobby rolled over give him the coup de grace through his forehead. Bobby was still lying among the dead when medics and undertakers reached to Jonestown. As the few survivors were airlifted to Georgetown, Bobby looked around with hope to see his wife, at least her body so he could put finality to what unfolded before him. Soon after his treatment at hospital, Bobby went into hiding, swearing that people wanted him dead and they were looking for him. On the contrary, the people who sought him wanted nothing more but for him to be alive and well.

***

Bio: Born and educated in the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, Geeta Outar-Sirjoo is a Guyanese/Trinidadian writer, who has always had a passion for the creative.

She founded ‘GEETA’S CREATIONS’, a designer and clothing manufacturing company.

She is the author of three novels:  FORTUNATE DISASTER, A RAINBOW IN THE NORTH and

CASTLES IN THE SKY. She also authored, ‘LOVE SURVIOR’ a short story published as a single unit. Presently, she is working on her fourth novel, ‘In Pursuit of Gold’.

She has also ventured into the field of scriptwriting. To her credit. A Proof of Concept, is in several Film festivals around the world.

She has two features in preproduction stages, she is well on the way to the big screens.

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