'Screamers' cultist meets grisly end in Columbia

by Mary Braid and Jan McGirk

It was a grisly end to an idyllic, idealistic childhood. And the saddest chapter yet in the story of a hippie "cult" dogged by bad luck. Tristan James, a gentle lad of 18 who had been raised in the Atlantis commune in the Colombian rainforest, was to return to Ireland, the country of his birth, for a gap year. But before he went, he wanted to say goodbye to his 17-year-old brother Brendan, who was living in the country's highlands, southwest of Bogota, with a local family. He also wanted to glimpse one more time the organic farm in the forest from which his community had been evicted by rebels the year before.

It was a grisly end to an idyllic, idealistic childhood. And the saddest chapter yet in the story of a hippie "cult" dogged by bad luck. Tristan James, a gentle lad of 18 who had been raised in the Atlantis commune in the Colombian rainforest, was to return to Ireland, the country of his birth, for a gap year. But before he went, he wanted to say goodbye to his 17-year-old brother Brendan, who was living in the country's highlands, southwest of Bogota, with a local family. He also wanted to glimpse one more time the organic farm in the forest from which his community had been evicted by rebels the year before.

Only one eyewitness has talked about the horrific events that unfolded on 9 July when Tristan and his friend, a 19-year-old called Javier Nova, stopped for a drink at the hamlet of Hoya Grande in the Incononzo region. That witness, a woman who insisted on anonymity, has since fled the area, which is racked by bloody civil war. Everyone else is simply too terrified to talk.

According to the witness, the hapless teenagers were seized by four drunken gunmen, who there and then convened a macabre mock trial in which they were accused of spying for right-wing paramilitary groups. It was a farcical scene, but what happened next was gruesome in the extreme. The woman told how the men slit Tristan's throat - and as his life ebbed away, cut off his head.

While Tristan's blood was being spilt, his friend was made to watch. Then it was his turn: Javier's throat was also slit, and he was also beheaded. The woman recalled that the gunmen yelled: "We shall kill this gringo for bringing the death squads into this area..." Afterwards the bodies were doused with petrol and set alight. No one seems to doubt the eye witness's story. The boys were never seen again and no bodies have been found.

Violence is nothing new in Colombia, where the government, with $1bn from the United States, is waging war on leftist rebel forces, who are financed in turn by vast local opium and coca crops. This year alone, 1,389 Colombians have officially been slain by leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries in 314 separate massacres. On forest paths, villagers regularly find bodies which bear the "necktie" signature of the right-wing militias - where a victim's tongue has been pulled through his slit throat, as a warning to peasants who support the rebels.

So horrific murder is a fact of life, and civilians are mostly too terrified to protest, even when their loved ones become victims. But Tristan's murder was different - for instead of keeping quiet, his grandmother, Jenny James, and a fellow commune member, Donegal-born Anne Barr, are demanding information from every quarter even risking their lives by appearing on television and naming the killers.

The formidable matriarch of the female-dominated commune, Jenny James has always cut her own path. It was she who, more than 20 years ago, scandalised conservative Catholic Ireland when she decamped from her Brixton commune to the quaint fishing village of Burtonport, in Donegal, to found the back-to-nature community which became notorious in 1970s Ireland for its members' sexual promiscuity and practice of "primal-scream therapy". And it was she who, 13 years ago, brought the Screamers to Colombia from Ireland. Now she has turned her energies to breaking through "the wall of terrified silence" which surrounds her grandson's murder.

Back in Ireland, meanwhile, Tristan's mother, Rebecca Garcia, and her half-sister, Louise, are trying to push the European end of their campaign for justice, helped by Mary Kelly, a long-time commune member with three sons in Colombia. In a small, cluttered flat in Cork, Garcia explained that she had not seen Tristan for two years - having returned to Ireland to help repair the commune's sailing ship, in preparation for an ambitious voyage back to Colombia, and to sell its old Burtonport headquarters. Atlantis's remaining ties with the old country were being severed and eventually the women planned to return to the rainforests.

Rebecca says that for a very brief period in July she clung to the hope that Tristan had been kidnapped, before accepting that he was dead. Commune life has made her oddly unwilling to make Tristan's murder her own special loss. "I gave birth to Tristan," she told me. "But I really feel for the kids he grew up with. The saddest thing is that Tristan's life was just beginning."

On the walls of the little Cork flat, and in the "family" photo albums, there are pictures of Tristan, clad in crimson, and the other commune kids, Louise, Alice and Katy, all pretty and blonde, performing in the commune's theatre group. Their "gringo" band has performed all over Colombia. There are also pictures of the girls - in ethereal white costumes - practising yoga in the rainforest. In another the three sisters are being drenched under a stunning Colombian waterfall. It all seems as bohemian as Isadora Duncan, as idealistic as Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie The Beach.

But Louise, who is now 19 and who returned to Ireland two years ago to study dance, says it would be wrong to think of commune life as pure pleasure, and members as dreamers. Surviving in the rainforest, she says, is tough, particularly with the violence, which has become so bad that at times the group has had to arm itself.

Louise has been upset by the way the media has focused more on the commune's Screamer past than Tristan's murder. Rebecca, though grieving, has had calls from tabloids only interested in the old "free love" days when commune-members changed partners with alarming regularity. In Ireland, Mary says, at least the community was allowed to shed its Screamer baggage long ago and move into the environmental mainstream.

"All this stuff about the 1970s," says Louise. "It was all before Tristan and I were even born." But many who remember how the Screamers lived, are fascinated by their unexpected reappearance, two decades later, at the centre of the Colombian civil war.

Jenny James was already 33 when she arrived in Donegal in September 1974 to buy a new home for "her tribe". The middle-class daughter of Communist parents, she later wrote romantically of the west of Ireland with its "warm mist, rough roads... and cottages crumbling back into the earth they came from".

This was the perfect isolated spot, she believed, in which to create the perfect community and experiment with anti-psychiatry therapies. The three-storey building in Burtonport, purchased by James for £10,000, soon rang with screams. Sleepy little Burtonport must have had its moments. But, clearly, the new neighbours took it by surprise. Atlantis House's exterior was speedily re-painted with astrological signs, ruining the village's uniform whitewash and enraging the local council. Then the visitors, many emotionally distressed, began to arrive. And with them came scandal.

Mary Kelly says the scandals - accusations of kidnap, brainwashing and sexual promiscuity - that engulfed Atlantis were exaggeration and prejudice, eagerly seized upon, and by, a conservative establishment which saw Atlantis as a threat to religious and family values. In They Call Us the Screamers, Jenny James claims it was a split between an Irish couple staying at the commune that led to a man claiming his two children had been kidnapped and his wife brainwashed by a "cult". Questions were asked in the Dail and MPs called for the "English" Atlantis community to be deported. Even the IRA got involved, issuing kneecapping threats and bomb warnings.

Journalists and film crews trekked west and were invited in to witness tearful therapy sessions. While some condemned Atlantis as completely fruity, others actually joined the commune. The group tried to get away by moving to the nearby island of Innisfree, where they lived without electricity, but the west coast Eden was already spoiled.

A new paradise had to be found. Louise bristles at the suggestion that her mother wafted down to South America, Katy still in nappies, utterly naive and unprepared. James already had a degree in South American studies and had learned the native Indian language, Quechua. And she had money in her pocket, the profits from the commune's cottages rented to holidaymakers on Innisfree.

In her book, James occasionally comes over as a Svengali, unsympathetic to Irish families who "lost" their children to the group. And those who saw Atlantis as nothing but an excuse for sexual promiscuity were treated to the details of numerous partner changes.

Mary, Rebecca and Louise come over as level-headed. But some of Atlantis's early practices now seem quite bonkers. In one memorable passage Jenny James describes how the female-dominated commune is haemorrhaging men and how she and two other women spend all morning weeping in each other's arms in Becky's room while "Becky [Rebecca, then 14] does her homework".

But as Louise points out, it was another time. Primal therapy may not been jettisoned by the group but it is no longer centre stage. Louise does not talk of therapy sessions but of environmental lobbying and of Atlantis's attempts to get Colombian peasant farmers to save the rainforest by switching from poppies and coca to organic food production.

What cannot be denied is that James has vision and stamina, and enough charisma to have kept a small core group of followers together across continents and the passing of two decades. Twenty years ago Jenny James was, however, misguidedly pushing for the "truth". After Tristan's murder, she says, that's what she still wants.

In Cork Louise says she knows the campaign her mother is waging in Colombia is dangerous. But idealism is obviously contagious. Why stay in Colombia now that the farms have been confiscated and Tristan and Javier are dead? Surely the Colombian dream, like the paradise in Donegal, is over. "Colombia is completely chaotic just now," she says. "But it is so very beautiful and we believe we have a chance of changing it into an ideal society."

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