(Australian Broadcasting Corporation, March 20, 2000)
Forensic scientists in Uganda are trying to determine how many people died in the country's cult mass suicide - a process that could take a week, but even then might not be precise.
At least 200 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments are believed to have died when they set fire to their church.
One estimate goes to almost 500.
Piles of human remains are still inside the charred shell of the school room, which doubled as a church used by the group.
Members of the sect, which was anticipating the end of the world, crowded into the building last Friday. It was then set alight.
With windows and doors boarded shut, no-one is known to have escaped the blaze.
The Ugandan Government is confronting a marked increase in cult activity, particularly in rural areas.
In the past six months, two organisations have been closed down by police, but it is unknown how many more are operating in the country.
(USA Today, March 19, 2000)
KANUNGU, Uganda (AP) - Rutemba Didas heard what sounded like an explosion, then saw black smoke billowing from the brick structure on a hilltop compound where members of a religious cult had been living for several years.
The farmer and his neighbors heard screams coming from the chapel, but they couldn't get close to the new building inside the compound where members of the Movement for the Restoration of Ten Commandments of God lived in this remote corner of southwestern Uganda.
Police said Sunday it may take them a week to determine how many people died in the Friday morning fire, but they believe there were as many as 470 victims - of either mass suicide or mass murder.
Cult members locked themselves in the chapel early Friday and nailed doors and windows closed, then sang for a few hours before dousing themselves in gasoline and paraffin and setting themselves ablaze, said David Sseppuuya, deputy editor-in-chief of the government-owned New Vision newspaper, quoting investigators.
''According to an eyewitness on the site, they came around and bid farewell to the people and they heard that the Virgin Mary would appear on Friday, so they did expect to die on Friday,'' Sseppuuya said.
Didas' recollections of the horrifying fire also suggest a mass-suicide.
''We did not see any person running away. We really don't know what happened to the leaders,'' Didas said, standing a short distance from where charred bodies lay spread across the floor of a 120-foot by 30-foot structure.
Circumstances surrounding the deaths - who the dead were and how the fire was started - remain foggy. Little was known about the cult, although it appeared to incorporate Christian beliefs and local farmers said it was led by a former prostitute.
Syncretic Christian religious sects are mushrooming across Africa as many people become disillusioned with the inability of politicians to improve their lives. In one case, also in Uganda, a sect turned into a guerrilla movement that used claims of religious powers to attract fighters.
Didas said the cult was established in 1994 by former prostitute Credonia Mwerinde at her family's compound.
He said members of the cult did not socialize with others in the area and communicated only by gesture, although they did sing and pray aloud. The women wore white veils, and the men wore black, green or red shirts, he said.
Local leaders said members of the sect slaughtered their cattle and feasted for a week before the fire, drinking a large supply of soft drinks and singing religious songs, according to the independent newspaper The Monitor.
Cult members from inside and outside the compound had been invited to a ceremony Friday to inaugurate the chapel, which had recently been built by Mwerinde on the graves of her parents, Didas said.
In other buildings on the compound, there were images of the Virgin Mary and several rosaries.
Didas, whose farm adjoins the compound, said two men, one identified as Joseph Kibweteere and the other an unidentified Catholic priest, were Mwerinde's deputies. It was not known if any of the three had died in the blaze.
A report Sunday in the Monitor disputed that account, saying Kibweteere was the sect leader. He had reportedly predicted that the world would come to an end Dec. 31 but changed that to Dec. 31, 2000 after nothing happened, the newspaper said.
Curious onlookers and people from Kanungu trading center, less than a mile from the compound, peered into the building, holding sprigs of rosemary to their noses to ward off the stench.
Tumwesigye Kajungu, a former schoolteacher from the trading center who refused to join the cult, said his wife and six children died in the blaze.
''I last saw my wife on March 8. She told me something was going to happen on the 15th. And if nothing happened, then she would see me again,'' he said.
In the capital, Kampala, 217 miles to the northeast, deputy police spokesman Eric Naigambi said the cult had been regarded as peaceful.
Asuman Mugenyi, another police spokesman, said the adults who died would be treated a suicide victims, but the deaths of those under 18 years old would be regarded as murder.
The victims included children, although the charred condition of the bodies could make it impossible to identify them or arrive at a conclusive figure the numbers of dead, Sseppuuya said. Doctors began autopsies Sunday.
Didas, the farmer, said that authorities closed down a school in the compound about a year ago because it was not following a prescribed curriculum and all instruction was done through gestures.
Relatively little is known about the philosophy of the movement.
In the mid-1980s when Uganda was emerging from 15 years of bloody civil war, a woman calling herself a spirit medium said she could lead a guerrilla army through battle unscathed. Alice Auma Lakwena told members of her Holy Spirit Movement they would be protected from bullets by rubbing themselves with oil pressed from shea nuts.
In 1987 she sought refuge in neighboring Kenya. Her cousin, Joseph Kony, took up the insurgency and called it the Lord's Resistance Army and said it was based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in northern Uganda and the abduction of children and youths..
(Reuters, March 19, 2000)
KANUNGU (Reuters) Grieving families and horrified neighbors fear that anything up to 400 men, women and children may have died in the Millennium Year mass suicide of a Ugandan Doomsday cult.
But forensic experts, who are expected from the capital Kampala on Monday to search the ruins of the gutted church where the cultists burned to death, may be hard put to establish a definite toll, local officials said on Sunday.
Nor, with many bodies burned beyond recognition, will it be easy to establish whether cult founder Joseph Kibwetere, a former opposition politician, died among the believers he taught to expect the End of the World.
The charred corpses lay untouched on Sunday in the wreckage of the prayer house of the "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God'' in the small farming community of Kanungu in the remote southwest corner of Uganda.
The bodies of at least 11 children could be seen among the ruins and there were probably many more.
Some of the corpses, with their hair and clothes burnt away and their features obliterated, stretched out their arms in what looked like an appeal for help while others lay face down or balanced on their elbows with their heads back.
Still more seemed to be huddling together against the flames. One baby was curled up like a fetus on the ground.
Swarms of flies buzzed over the ruins and rain seeped through the collapsed sheets of the corrugated iron roof.
CULTISTS HELD LAST PARTY
A small contingent of local police and soldiers stood guard over the blackened shell of the building. Grieving relatives wept at the gruesome scene and dozens of villagers and their children gathered to peer through windows and doors.
"Leave me alone, I want to go with them,'' shouted Justine Rushenya as a soldier prevented her entering the building.
The middle-aged Rushenya later told Reuters she had lost 13 family members in the mass suicide, including her mother and father and several brothers and sisters.
"I have lost all these people and I don't know how we will recover,'' she kept repeating.
"We are trying to keep the area clear for health reasons, said local administrator Rutenda Didas. "We hope they will come to start clearing it tomorrow.''
In a nearby dormitory, chicken bones and millet bread bore witness to the last party the cult members enjoyed.
Local officials said the cultists had slaughtered a cow and ordered 70 crates of soda the night before taking their lives.
The only official estimate of the death toll is based on the cult's registered membership last year about 235 although police know that later converts may also have died.
Local people say there are about 400 cult members not accounted for.
"We know the camp had many more occupants than usual,'' local army commander Steven Mujuni told Reuters. "Some who lived in other places had gathered there but we do not know how many.'' An exact number of dead may never be established, he said.
CULT FOUNDER'S FATE UNKNOWN
Cult members sold off their possessions, dressed up in their finest white, green and black robes, gathered in the church and nailed the doors and windows shut.
They sang and chanted for hours, before dousing themselves in fuel and setting their church on fire in what is believed to be the second biggest mass suicide of recent world history.
"All along they had said that this (the church) is the boat of Noah,'' said Florence, a local villager. "This is the ark and they were told that at the time of calamity they would come here.'' "They were told that at a certain time this year the world would end and so the leaders made it happen and perhaps the people there believed it had happened,'' she said.
Local people say they have no information one way or the other on the fate of Kibwetere, a middle-aged man who founded the sect about a decade ago.
The Ugandan newspaper New Vision said he was last seen in hospital in neighboring Kenya suffering from heart problems.
Nor do they know whether three excommunicated Roman Catholic priests Dominic Kataribabo, Gredeina Mwerindi and John Kamagara or two excommunicated nuns, all leading figures in the cult, died in the blaze.
Ugandan newspapers said the cult had been under investigation by local authorities since 1998 for mistreating and possibly kidnapping children, after a primary school they were running with 300 children was closed down.
In September, police in central Uganda disbanded another Doomsday cult, the 1,000-member "World Message Last Warning'' sect. The leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.
The largest mass suicide of recent times took place in 1978 when a paranoid U.S. pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.
(BBC, March 19, 2000)
Horrified relatives have been trying to identify the charred remains of hundreds of people who burned to death in an apparent mass suicide in Uganda.
They were all inside and the doors were closed and the windows nailed down from the outside Police officials say it is clear the number of victims could be higher than previously thought.
A tangle of charred bodies remained in the makeshift church on Sunday, 48 hours after members of the Restoration of the Ten commandments of God cult church set themselves ablaze.
List of cult members
Initial reports said around 235 men, women and children died in the small trading centre of Kanungu, about 320km (200 miles), southwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
This figure was based on the number of people who had registered as members of the movement.
"Some of our leaders talk directly to God. Any minute from now, when the end comes, every believer who will be at an as yet undisclosed spot will be saved" (Emmanuel Twinomujuni, cult member) But correspondents say police have discovered a full list of the cult's members and, although they are not revealing the figure, say it could be much more than previously thought.
Some reports have put the death toll at 470.
"All indications are that we have a mass suicide," Inspector General John Kisembo said.
"We know that the leaders of the church must have planned it." No attempt has been made to remove the corpses and identification of the bodies will be almost impossible.
Forensic experts have spent the day sifting through the blackened remains but it is unlikely an exact death toll will ever be reached since some of the bodies were reduced to ashes.
One local farmer said he heard what sounded like an explosion, then saw black smoke billowing from the makeshift church on top of the hill where cult members had been living for a number of years.
Religious icons were found around the movement's compound
He said he and his neighbours heard screaming coming from the church, in the forested area near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A member of the local defence force, Corporal Stephen Mojuni, arrived at the church while it was still ablaze.
He said rescuers were unable to save any of the cult's members because the wooden shutters and doors had been hammered shut with nails.
On Sunday, a steady stream of Ugandans trekked along the muddy path to the church in an attempt to identify the remains of relatives and friends.
Witnesses said there were signs that the cult was getting ready for a big event in the days leading up to the fire.
One report said the group's leader, Joseph Kibweteere, told his followers to sell their possessions and prepare to go to heaven.
Food found at the site was destroyed
Local residents said the cult members had a party on Wednesday at which they consumed 70 crates of soft drinks and three bulls.
The BBC's correspondent at the scene, Martin Dawes, says while one of the bodies appeared to have the remains of a clergyman's collar around the neck, it was not known whether Mr Kibweteere died with his followers.
There have also been reports that other leaders of the cult included two former Roman Catholic priests.
Correspondents say evidence of its Roman Catholic roots lay scattered around the cult's compound.
Three statues of Jesus stood in the leader's abandoned offices, while a large crucifix had been laid carefully on green cloth draped across a chair.
'End of the world'
The community was involved in farming but villagers later destroyed its food supply, fearing that it might be poisoned.
It has been reported the movement had been preparing for the end of the world this year.
Last year, one of cult's members, Emmanuel Twinomujuni, told the state-owned New Vision newspaper that "there was no time to waste".
"Some of our leaders talk directly to God," he said.
"Any minute from now, when the end comes, every believer who will be at an as yet undisclosed spot will be saved."
(Reuters, March 19, 2000)
KAMPALA, March 19 (Reuters) - The Ugandan Doomsday cult whose followers committed mass suicide on Friday had been under investigation by local authorities since 1998 for mistreating and possibly kidnapping children, local papers said on Sunday.
More than 200 members of the ``Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God,'' some leading children, set themselves alight in their church in southwestern Uganda in the belief the end of the world was approaching, police said.
Police said they were treating the deaths as both suicide and murder because children were involved.
The extremist Christian cult had already come under the scrutiny of the local authorities in late 1998 when a primary school they were running was closed down.
Uganda's state-owned New Vision newspaper on Sunday printed a letter from local district administrator Frank Ntaho closing down the boarding school, which was reported to have 300 pupils.
``The children are only given porridge for lunch, they sleep on the bare floor without blankets and mattresses, look malnourished and are subjected to child labour while some are staying with you without their parents' knowledge,'' Ntaho said.
``While further investigations to bring you to book are still going on, the district council has decided to stop your operation as a school with immediate effect,'' he wrote then.
The police declined to comment on the report on Sunday.
Local papers said the sect, one of several Doomsday cults to have sprung up in Uganda in recent years, was registered as a non-governmental organisation in 1997, but had been in operation since the early 1990s.
The police said all 235 registered members of the sect had probably perished in the fire, and probably some unregistered new arrivals as well.
(Associated Press, March 19, 2000)
K A M P A L A, Uganda, March 19 Two days after an apparent mass suicide in a remote part of southwest Uganda, a police spokesman said today that up to 470 cult members may have died in the fire. Followers of a doomsday cult about 200 miles southwest of Ugandas capital Kampala, set themselves ablaze, taking the lives of up to 470 people.(Magellan Geographix/ABCNEWS.com) Spokesman Asuman Mugenyi said it was impossible to identify bodies at the scene but the number of dead was likely to be double the 235 reported earlier.
The scene is horror, he told The Associated Press after visiting the site of the fire. It is only about two or three bodies which you can say that these are men or women. The rest of the bodies are beyond human shape. Mugenyi said the adults who died would be treated as suicide victims but the deaths of those under 18 years old would be regarded as murder. Cult Had Been Peaceful The fire Friday burned through a church in the small town of Kanungu, some 217 miles southwest of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, according to deputy police spokesman Eric Naigambi. The doors and windows of the church were nailed shut, he said. Naigambi said the cultthe Movement for the Restoration of Ten Commandments of Godhad built the school, which they were using as a temporary church, as part of local community development projects. He said the cult was peaceful and legally registered as a non-governmental organization. Doctors began autopsies today and forensic experts were expected to arrive from Kampala the same day. Naigambi said it would take at least a week to know the exact number of people who died.
We dont know who was inside or outside, he said. Relatives of people said to have burned keep on telling us that their relatives are nowhere to be seen, and yet we have not proved their identities.
70 Crates of Soda and Three Bulls
Local residents told the paper the cult members had a party on Wednesday at which they consumed 70 crates of soda and three bulls. They then gathered personnel belongings including clothing, money, suitcases and church materials and set them on fire, the paper reported. On Thursday, cult members went around nearby villages bidding farewell to neighbors, witnesses told the Sunday Vision newspaper. They were aware they would die on March 17 because the Virgin Mary had promised to appear at the camp during the morning hours to carry them to heaven, Anastasia Komuhanti told the paper. It was unclear whether sect leader Joseph Kibweteere died in the fire. He had predicted the world would end Dec. 31 but changed it to Dec. 31, 2000, after nothing happened, said the independent newspaper The Monitor in its Sunday edition.
by Karl Vick ("The Washington Post", March 19, 2000)
NAIROBI, March 18 At least 120 members of a doomsday cult burned to death in their church in a remote town in southwestern Uganda on Friday, authorities said today.
Police said the condition of the charred bodies made it difficult to say how many people died inside the makeshift church of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a sect that preached the world would end in 2000. It also was unclear whether they perished in a mass suicide or were locked inside the sanctuary before it was set alight, police added.
Estimates emerging from the town of Kanungu, about 215 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala, ranged from 120 dead to the entire reported church membership of about 240, and beyond.
"Prior to this incident their leader told believers to sell off their possessions and prepare to go to heaven," a police spokesman told reporters today. It was unclear how long before the conflagration the order was given.. News agencies reported that members of the sect were burning and selling their property last year in preparation for the new millennium.
Initial reports said members of the sect had locked themselves in the sanctuary and set it afire after spending several hours chanting and singing..
The Associated Press, however, quoted an anonymous police officer today as saying the group's leader "lured the people inside the church and set it on fire."
After visiting the scene today, police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi told the Reuters news agency that all registered members of the sect in Kanungu had probably perished in the fire and that unregistered new arrivals may also have died.
He said the wooden-framed windows of the church appeared to have been boarded up and there was no sign of a struggle. The bodies--burned beyond recognition--lay in the center of the shell of the building.
He said the bodies had been left where they lay for forensic experts to examine on Sunday.
Churches of all stripes are thriving in Africa, which embraced the 19th-century missionaries who flocked there from Europe. Mainstream Christian faiths exist alongside thousands of individual churches often built around charismatic speakers and even "money-based theology."
As required by law, the Ten Commandments of God sect was registered by the government in 1997.
"I think it [the fire] calls on the state to review the issue of cults and see what measures to take to protect the ordinary people from cult leaders," Amama Mbabazi, Uganda's foreign affairs minister, told the government-owned Sunday Vision newspaper, according to the Associated Press.
In Uganda, doomsday cults have made headlines twice recently. In September, police raided the World Message Last Warning Church in the central Uganda district of Luwero, charging its leader with sexually exploiting children among more than 1,000 followers.
And in November, 100 riot police raided the camp of Nabassa Gwajwa, 19, a "prophetess" whom Ugandan authorities termed a security threat.
A rebel war in the country's north pits government forces against the Lord's Resistance Army, a group notorious for kidnapping children. It also is founded on the teachings of a "prophetess."
by Gavin Pattison (Reuters, March 19, 2000)
MBARARA, Uganda (Reuters) - More than 200 Christian cult members, some with their children, set themselves alight in a church in southwest Uganda in the belief that the end of the world is approaching, police said.
Men and women believers -- mostly former Roman Catholics -- sold their belongings, donned white, green and black robes and brought their children into the church of the obscure ``Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God'' in the remote little town of Kanungu.
With doors locked and windows boarded and nailed shut from breakfast time on Friday, they sang and chanted for several hours, doused themselves in fuel, then set the church on fire.
``People said they heard some screaming but it was all over very quickly,'' police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi, just back from the scene, told Reuters in Mbarara, the provincial capital.
Forensic experts and detectives began to sift through the remains on Sunday, tallying what is believed to be the world's second biggest mass suicide of recent history.
Kanungu, 200 miles from the capital Kampala, is tucked down in the southwest corner of Uganda, a country dictator Idi Amin once made a byword for African horrors.
Just to the west lies the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where armies of six African states have been sucked into a messy civil war. Just south is Rwanda, where 800,000 people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide.
STRUGGLE TO CONTAIN CULTS
Local papers said the extremist Christian sect, one of several Doomsday cults to have sprung up in Uganda in recent years, was registered as a non-governmental organization in 1997, but had been in operation since the early 1990s.
The police said all 235 registered members of the sect had probably perished in the fire, and probably some unregistered new arrivals as well. But they said the death toll remained uncertain as many of the corpses were burned beyond recognition.
Cult leaders, who included former opposition political activist Joseph Kibwetere as well as two excommunicated priests, taught that the world would end in 2000.
``Prior to this incident their leader told believers to sell off their possessions and prepare to go to heaven,'' Mugenyi said, adding that the police were treating the incident as both suicide and murder because children were involved.
``Definitely it is both because there were a big number of children who were led there by their parents,'' he said.
Papers said the cult had been under investigation by local authorities since 1998 for mistreating and possibly kidnapping children, after a primary school they were running with 300 children was closed down.
They said it was not clear if Kibwetere and other cult leaders had been present at the mass suicide, with the New Vision reporting the self-styled prophet was last seen in hospital in neighboring Kenya suffering from heart problems.
In September, police in central Uganda disbanded another Doomsday cult, the 1,000-member ``World Message Last Warning'' sect. The leaders were charged with rape, kidnapping and illegal confinement.
Uganda has a history of fanatical religious movements.
An extreme and violent Christian cult, the Holy Spirit Movement, sprang up in poor northern Uganda in the late 1980s. Many hundreds of believers died in suicidal attacks, convinced that magic oil would protect them from the soldiers' bullets.
Its successor, the Lord's Resistance Army, is still pursuing a guerrilla war. It claims it wants to rule the country on the basis of the Biblical Ten Commandments, yet it has kidnapped thousands of boys and girls to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, and frequently commits atrocities against local people.
The largest mass suicide of recent times took place in 1978 when a paranoid U.S. pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.
Cult members who refused to swallow the liquid were shot. Jones had carved a sign over his altar at Jonestown, reading ''Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.''
In recent years there have been several smaller group suicides in Europe and North America, three of them involving the Solar Temple, an international sect that believes death by ritual suicide leads to rebirth.
Ten Commandments of God: Mass Suicide in Uganda
CESNUR reproduces or quotes documents from the media and different sources on a number of religious issues. Unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed are those of the document's author(s), not of CESNUR or its directors.
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