Jonestown Survivors Remember

AP, April 5, 2000
By Michelle Locke

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) - As Jynona Norwood listens to the details of the Uganda cult deaths - the megalomaniac leader, the apocalyptic teachings, the small bodies curled up in unnatural death - she remembers.

She flashes back 22 years to another utopia gone hellishly wrong, to Jonestown, where her mother and 26 other family members died.

``Yes, it does jerk me back and it does bring back emotional pain which you never really get over,'' she says. ``It just makes my journey a little more urgent. How many more children have to die?''

For Deborah Layton, who fled Jonestown just before the killings, the mysterious Movement for Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda is also stirring up memories.

``Nobody joins a cult. You join a self-help group, a religious movement, a political organization,'' Layton says. ``They change so gradually, by the time you realize you're entrapped - and almost everybody does - you can't figure a safe way back out.''

As the deaths in Uganda refocus the spotlight on the shadowy world of cults, the images of death and innocence betrayed have a special resonance with those who lived through the madness of Jonestown.

The similarities are striking: Both happened in remote tropical locations. Both were led by charismatic leaders who offered a better way. Both took so many lives, the toll lurches into the surreal.

In Uganda, disaster apparently was triggered after cult leaders' predictions that the world would end Dec. 31, 1999, failed to materialize. On March 17, 530 members were burned alive in a chapel, consumed by gasoline-fueled flames and trapped behind doors and windows bolted from the outside. An additional 394 bodies have been found in compounds connected to the cult, many stabbed and strangled and buried in mass graves. The toll could rise.

Jim Jones was driven to his South American refuge, along with 1,000 of his followers, amid questions about the darker side of Peoples Temple, the beatings of recalcitrant members, the faked healings.

Jones had charmed the masses with his interracial congregation bent on building a better world, and politicians with his ability to deliver votes.

The end came in November 1978, when Congressman Leo Ryan visited Guyana to investigate reports that the Peoples Temple was abusing its members and holding some against their will.

Ryan's delegation was met with smiles. But as they prepared to leave, cult members killed him and four other Americans. That night, Jones gave his final orders.

Children died first; babies were killed by poison squirted into their mouths with a syringe. Then the adults. Most were poisoned by cyanide-laced punch, some forcibly. Others were shot by security guards. Jones was found with a bullet wound in his head, whether suicide or murder is unknown. At least 913 of his followers died.

In her memoir, ``Seductive Poison,'' Layton describes how she fell for the answers Jones seemed to offer, eventually becoming a trusted deputy. But by May 1978, she was ready to make her escape.

``It happens and it will continue to happen because in so many peoples' lives, even in America where we have so much, there is a loss of identity, a loneliness, and people are looking for community,'' Layton says.

Jim Jones Jr., the adopted son of the Jonestown leader who escaped as part of a camp basketball team, says there isn't a pat explanation for the deaths.

``I don't think there is a canned answer. I just think tragedies like this have happened. They've happened in the past. I don't think they're really preventable.''

Norwood was giving a dinner party in a San Francisco suburb when her uncle called and told her to turn on the news.

She had never joined the Peoples Temple, but her grandmother, mother and a host of other relatives had.

Norwood, now pastor of a South Central Los Angeles church, has organized annual memorial services at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, where more than 400 Jonestown victims, mostly children, are buried in a mass grave.

``I think about my mother and I think about what happened in Jonestown every day,'' she says. ``I drive down the street in my car and I think about our family.''

She has tried to get a commemorative wall erected for the Jonestown victims.

``It's quite traumatic to see the number 900,'' she says of the Uganda tragedy. ``Almost 22 years and we're not really learning the lessons of Jonestown.''

Her view echoes a sign that hung in the pavilion in Guyana: ``Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''

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