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Nowhere to wait for help: the memories of a surviving member of the commune 40 years after the suicide of 900 Americans in Guyana

Lara Cole was among the few who managed to avoid a sad fate. But, like most people, she could not foresee the tragedy.

November 18, 2018 the tragedy in the village of Johnstown in South American Guyana turned 40 years old. On that day, more than 900 followers of the Temple of the Nations totalitarian religious community committed suicide following the covenants of their leader. Most of the dead arrived from the United States, hoping to build a socialist utopia in a foreign country.

Of all the church members, about 80 people were saved, including an American, Lara Cole. Like many other followers, the girl saw hope in the ideology of the “Temple of Nations”, and in its leader – the hero. At the request of the BBC, she returned to memories of life in the commune and the tragedy that befell her.

From California to the jungle of Guyana

Washington-born Lara Cole was never shy about expressing her position loudly. By the age of 22, she had already attended the Woodstock festival at numerous rallies, collaborated with the black radical “Black Panthers” left-wing party and experienced the effects of tear gas during clashes with the police because of the Vietnam War.

But by 1970, the girl was tired – her marriage was falling apart, and political protests were exhausted physically and mentally. She moved to California, hoping to find peace. And there was a man ready to help her with this.

When in 1960, Jim Jones was ordained a priest, there were already years of street religious demonstrations behind his back. He was fond of socialism, advocated for the equality of blacks with whites and openly sympathized with the USSR. However, this did not prevent him from sincerely believing that the Cold War would lead the world to an apocalypse in the form of a nuclear war, and only the elect would be saved.

Jim Jones in the USA. Photo by Nancy Wong

In 1965, his religious movement “Temple of the Nations” numbering no more than 80 people moved to California. Thanks to political insight, in parallel with the development of the community, Jones achieved a high post in the city municipality of San Francisco. Following the socialist covenants, he concentrated around himself immigrants from the poor strata of the population, as well as black Americans and members of sexual minorities.

“It was the community I needed. I was looking for equality and justice, and there were people of all backgrounds and races, ”Cole describes the“ Temple of the Nations, ”which she joined in 1970. That time was the peak of the power of the church, but with this increased the number of its opponents. Relatives of the participants of the “Temple of Nations” complained that Jones lured people into fraud, forcibly held them and extorted money.

The community was threatened with a federal investigation, and in 1974, Jones announced that they would find a new place to live without the alcohol and drugs inherent in the United States.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“We found Guyana in South America, which was the perfect place to move. A beautiful country with distant regions that we could inhabit, ”Cole describes his impressions.[/perfectpullquote]

In the same year, Jones rented land in the jungles of Guyana and, together with several leaders of the Temple of the Nations, laid the foundation for the Jonestown settlement, named after the founder of the community. Three years later, Cole was among more than 900 people who, together with their leader, left the United States for their new home. “I was not embarrassed by the move. I wanted adventure, and I was glad to have the opportunity to live in the jungle, ”said the survivor.

Together, the followers of the “Temple of Nations” improved the territory, grew crops, built houses, a sawmill, a school and a kindergarten. The community grew and developed, but most of the population of Johnstown worked on average daily for 11 hours in a climate that was radically different from that of California. But were people unhappy? It is hard to say.

Johnstown in the late 1970s. FBI Photos

Many relatives of the deceased followers told how, when they came to the village, they met their relatives with exhausted and tired people. But for every such statement, the opposite was true, which described Johnstown as a happy place filled with inspired people. Cole remembered him like this: “There were wonderful people there. Other survivors may say otherwise, but I was glad. It was a happy time in my life. ”

After the tragedy, the US military found stocks of drugs in the buildings of the commune. It is not known how often they were used, but relatives of the deceased followers said that drugs were a way to pressure those who tried to leave the community. In addition, Jones himself used the prohibited substances, which, as it turned out, were imported from the United States.

In October 1978, Jones personally asked Cole to move to the capital of Guyana, Georgetown, to work in the local branch of the community. As the survivor says, it was a preemptive step by the preacher: he sent to the capital trustworthy members of the community who could occasionally tell the world about the successes of the “Temple of Nations. And in that year, the municipality just lacked a good reputation.

900 people before the final decision

In the fall of 1978, a member of the California Democratic Party, Leo Ryan, was preparing to visit Johnstown at the request of relatives of followers of the community. Meanwhile, Cole remembers, Jones began to lose touch with reality and was disappointed in the idea of ​​the village. Rumors of his insanity were circulating among the locals, and allegations of child abuse were heard in the American press.

The settlement experienced food shortages, and more and more people suffered from diarrhea. “His [Jones] drug addiction and mental abnormalities were getting worse. He was less and less able to work, ”Cole describes the last months of Johnstown. Sometimes the leader of the community collected all followers, including children, and forced them to drink the liquid, which he gave out as poison. People obeyed, and when nothing happened, Jones solemnly announced that he was simply testing their “dedication.”

The Temple of the Nations office in Johnstown. Alamy Photos

On November 17, politician Leo Ryan, representatives of public organizations and several journalists arrived at the settlement: for the next two days they communicated with local people and studied the life of Johnstown. For the guests in the community, they organized a gala concert, and even skeptical reporters acknowledged that people look friendly and happy. Nevertheless, several families responded to Raina’s offer to return to the United States, and the initial group of arrivals increased by 16 people.

When Jones found out about the departure of a group of followers, he returned the passports to them, gave them money to go home, and wished them good luck. Those leaving did not look frightened or exhausted, and some of them only wanted to visit their relatives and then return to Johnstown. Soon after, the incident occurred, which, as time showed, was perceived by the arrivals as too lenient. One of the members of the commune attacked Ryan, putting a knife at his throat. The intruder was quickly disarmed, and the arriving Jones assured that the violator would be handed over to the local police. This policy is completely satisfied.

While the delegation was standing on the runway and preparing to return to the United States, a truck and a tractor suddenly appeared on the road. Members of the community approached the bewildered people, got out, took out their weapons and opened fire. Shooting five people, including Ryan, and wounding several more, the participants in the Temple of the Nations climbed into transport and left. The incident was partially recorded by the operator of the NBC television channel, who was killed during a shootout.

Record the incident at the airport. Carefully, there are scenes of violence in the video.

The US authorities still did not understand what had happened, and in the meantime Jones gathered all the followers for the evening speech. He announced that the American politician had been killed, and soon troops would descend into the settlement and take away the children from the community. The leader saw only one way – “revolutionary suicide”. Most followers agreed with the preacher, but a girl named Christine Miller opposed it. She offered to ask for help from the USSR, with whom the head of the socialist commune had long been in touch.

But for Jones, everything has already been decided. By his order, the residents of Johnstown (about 909 people) were poured grape drink, as at regular rehearsals, only this time with the addition of potassium cyanide and diazepam. At first, the children drank the poison (about 300 of the total population), and then all the rest.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Jim Jones was a fraud, he convinced everyone to take him as a father. He told them: “You cannot return, you have no money,” and that was true. All funds they invested in the church. They were afraid of the consequences of the death of the congressman. He lied to them every day, brought to paranoia. They had nowhere to wait for help.[/perfectpullquote]
Lara Cole
surviving member of the community “Temple of Nations” 

Sunset “Temple of the People”

Before shooting himself and his wife, Jones sent a radio message to the Temple of the Nations branch in Georgetown. It said that right now, in Johnstown, the followers of the community died or are dying, and all the rest of its members should do the same. After 40 years, Cole is still tormented by the question, what would be if she heard this message. At that time, she went out on business to the city, and when she returned, the National Guard had already taken away the bodies of the branch secretary and her children. They fulfilled the requirement of Jones.

The bodies of those killed in Johnstown. Getty Photos

“I think if I were in Johnstown and saw how 900 people I love make a choice, I would not be able to imagine life after that,” Cole muses. The bodies of the dead lay everywhere, leaning on each other. The next few months, the girl, like hundreds of other people, desperately tried to find loved ones in this chaos. The reporter who survived the incident at the airport was one of the first to return to the settlement. He saw not only hundreds of human bodies, but also the bodies of animals poisoned by their owners.

But despite the tragedy, Cole did not leave the “Temple of Nations.” In late November, she returned to California to members of the local community office. “They were my family, I lived with them for eight years, I knew them so closely. I have never been afraid. Only Jim Jones is to blame for these deaths, ”she explains. However, a year later she went to another religious community, where she met her future husband. And then she left life in the community behind. Since then, she has been working as a teacher, and, according to, has the ability to tell people the truth about sects.

Lara Cole with another surviving member of the Temple of the Nations. Photo from the personal archive of an American

Only 20 years later, Cole decided to meet with other survivors of the Temple of the Nations. Since then, she and a few dozen people meet annually to honor the memory of the dead. Every year there are less and less of them, but for Cole this day remains something deeply personal. “Sometimes we gather, communicate or sing songs. This is a sacred time and place. We forget that there is another world. ”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It means so much to me, I am who I am, because I experienced the “Temple of the Nations”, this [awareness] charges me every day. Johnstown can no longer have a logical end, it can not be restored. I could hate Jim Jones, but why? He is already dead. It makes no sense to live with hatred.[/perfectpullquote]
Lara Cole
surviving member of the community “Temple of Nations”

After the tragedy of 1978, the government of Guyana temporarily relocated ethnic refugees from Laos to Johnstown, but a few years later the place was finally abandoned. Houses and buildings were taken away by residents of the nearest settlements, and in the mid-1980s, a fire almost completely destroyed the capital of the “Temple of Nations”.

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