by Joshua Hammer ("Newsweek", April 3, 2000)
The sect members gave no warning. In a field a few yards away from their compound, Pius Kabeireho laid bricks in the mounting heat and listened to the joyful hallelujahs wafting from the simple corrugated-iron-roofed church where the worshipers went for their morning prayers. Suddenly, just past 10 a.m. on Friday, March 17, Kabeireho heard a loud explosion, followed by the screams of children. "Mother, save me!" he says they cried. Seized by panic, he ran to the nearby police station for help. When he returned, the church was aflame, and Kabeireho gazed on the scene with terror. "I saw hundreds of charred skeletons pressed together, kneeling, with their hands clasped in prayer," he says. Amid the acrid smell of charcoal and burned flesh, Kabeireho also detected the unmistakable odor of an insecticide sold in local shops. It had been sprayed, apparently, to intensify the flames.
The product's name: Doom.
The fire in Kanungu, deep in the impoverished rural highlands of southwest.
Uganda, was the latest horror to blight a region that has seen countless tragedies in recent years. At last count, 530 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in the fire, which at first glance appeared to have been set by members of the apocalyptic cult in an act of mass suicide. In Uganda, where the legacy of a long civil war and the rampant spread of AIDS have driven thousands to seek refuge in breakaway religious movements, news of the apparent suicides provoked widespread grief.
But as more information emerged last week, there were growing doubts that the sect members had willingly set themselves ablaze. Investigators are probing whether the group's leader, a messianic former Roman Catholic schoolteacher named Joseph Kibwetere, 68, had lured his unwitting flock to their deaths -- then fled with associates. The prophet may have decided to eliminate his followers after the end of the world he had long predicted failed to materialize. Last Friday, police discovered the bodies of 153 more people -- some strangled, others stabbed -- in a mass grave beneath a cult-owned house 35 miles from Kanungu. They had been murdered two weeks earlier. "If it is true that (the Kanungu victims) were killed and the leaders are alive, I may have to go there and join in the hunt," Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni told his countrymen.
There were few clues to be found at the site of the inferno. Five days after the fire, villagers wandered, stunned, through the sect's one-story dormitories that stood alongside the burned-out church, gawking at the inner sanctum of the strangers who had lived beside them for a decade. Grass mats, robes, school report cards and notebooks containing the scribbled messages of sect members -- all sworn to a code of silence -- littered the ground. A heap of red earth marked the mass grave where the victims had been dumped without ceremony. The church where they died was a pile of scorched rubble and iron roofing. Just up the hill, the stench of decomposed bodies rose from a pit beneath the leaders' house. Policemen held handkerchiefs to their faces as they removed the bodies of eight men -- apparently they had defied.
Kibwetere -- who had been bludgeoned and poisoned days before the fire. "(The cult members) were all simple people looking for a better life," said a local schoolteacher who has known Kibwetere for decades, "but this man sold them lies."
He was a charismatic deceiver. Born in southwest Uganda in 1932, Kibwetere was raised as a Roman Catholic, and taught and served as an administrator in Uganda's Catholic school system. But he broke from the church in the early 1980s after claiming that he could communicate directly with God. In 1984 Kibwetere announced that Jesus and Mary had visited him and commanded him to spread the word that the Apocalypse was coming. In the year 2000 epidemics and whirlwinds would blight the earth, he wrote in the movement's book of prophecy. The calamities would be followed by three days of darkness, during which three quarters of the world's population would die. Only those who followed Kibwetere and took refuge with him inside a church that he would build -- he called it the "ark" -- would be assured of survival.
The preacher set up camp in Kanungu in the early 1990s, merging his sect with that of a local prophetess and former prostitute named Keledonia Mwerinde.Their followers prayed and toiled 12 hours a day in the surrounding sugar-cane and banana fields. Members handed over their property to the church and exchanged their clothes for green uniforms and white caps. Men and women were segregated, sex was forbidden and fasting two days a week was mandatory. The cultists spoke to one another only in sign language. "They explained that if someone is talking at the end of the world, he won't hear the bell summoning him to heaven," says Kabeireho, who rejected many offers to join the group. Despite the harsh conditions, and repeated allegations of cruelty to children, the sect flourished. On a 1997 government registration form, Kibwetere claimed 4,500 followers.
The approach of the millennium marked the true test of the prophet's credibility. In a notebook recovered by NEWSWEEK in the abandoned dining hall, Kibwetere excitedly announced that the dawn of "the year one" was near."We are all waiting until December 31st," he wrote on Christmas morning. OnNew Year's Eve, he readied his flock for the end of the world. "We have to fill all the jerry cans with water," he wrote. "We have to be clean so that we can prepare ourselves for heaven." New Year's came and went. By mid-February, Kibwetere was again prophesying doomsday. "Buy flowers," he advised, "clean the church, and recruit other members for the special occasion." Two weeks before the inferno Kibwetere apparently had decided to take matters into his own hands. After a sect member complained that "the jerry cans are all leaking," Kibwetere responded ominously: "Don't bother with them. Soon everything will be over. We're going to make a big fire and the jerry cans will stop leaking."
Some investigators theorized that Kibwetere, depressed by the loss of his credibility, panicked. According to them, a handful of skeptical sect members apparently demanded that the leader return their property; they were murdered and tossed into the hidden pit. The killings seem to have lent new urgency to the leader's plans. Sect members sold their cattle, sugar and flour to villagers at half price. To deceive locals into believing that nothing was amiss, the sect sent out invitations to a party at the compound to be held Saturday, March 18 -- one day after the fire. On Thursday evening they gathered in the dining hall for a feast. The next morning they entered the church. The doors and windows were nailed shut. Then a match was struck, igniting a mixture of gasoline, sulfuric acid and insecticide. It is still unclear whether the victims knew they were about to die -- or whether they believed that the "ark" would be a refuge from the imminent apocalypse.
Learning the truth will be difficult, says detective Solomon Kyanmanywa, since "there were no survivors." None except, perhaps, Kibwetere and his associates. Some believe his charred body lies among those of his followers. But a 17-year-old eyewitness has told investigators that he saw both Kibwetere and his partner Mwerinde sneaking out of the compound late Thursday night carrying small suitcases.
The leaders' apparent escape has only deepened the grief of people such as Joseph Mpanimanya, 27, a taxi driver from north Uganda whose mother, father, wife and two small daughters joined the Ten Commandments of God movement last October. All perished. "I begged them not to go. I said the end of the world wasn't coming," he says, standing beside the mass grave where they lie buried. "They called me 'Satan' and said I didn't know what I was talking about." Police are now searching for more victims on the cult's properties scattered across Uganda. Until they finish their grim task, it will be impossible to gauge the full consequences of a madman's fatal delusions.
by Simon Robinson (TIME Europe April 3, 2000)
Kanungu - A few sheets of corrugated iron protrude from the scarred earth of a pretty, eucalyptus-studded hillside near the town of Kanungu in southwestern Uganda, twisting and snapping in the wind. That, and a residual stench of burnt and rotting bodies, are all that remain of the mud and concrete church that once stood there. Ten days after the leaders of an obscure indigenous Christian cult gathered--or perhaps forced--their followers into the building, doused it in gasoline and then set it on fire, the site has become a macabre graveyard. Last week police bulldozed the building and its grisly contents--at least 330, and perhaps as many as 550, charred corpses--into a trench dug by prisoners, burying the physical evidence but not erasing the horror of a tragedy shocking even by the standards of Uganda's violent history. "What most disturbs me are the children who died," says Gervis Muteguya, who lost five relatives in the inferno. "Children are innocent. They had no choice in this."
Ugandan police agree and with the discovery late last week of at least 150 more bodies, including 60 children, in two mass graves in a compound belonging to the cult 50 km from the church in Kanungu, are treating the deaths as murder. Officials were still trying to determine whether cult leader Joseph Kibwetere had died in the blaze or escaped. The former teacher and devout Catholic helped establish The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, 10 years ago after claiming to have been told by the Virgin Mary that the world would soon end. In the mid-1990s he established a base on land belonging to a senior sect member in remote Kanungu, close to the Congolese border. Using money provided by followers, who commonly sold their homes and possessions upon joining, and funds from groups and individuals overseas, Kibwetere and his fellow leaders built a small complex of houses, offices and a school. They recruited new followers from nearby rural districts and as far away as the capital, Kampala.
Among them were Muteguya's mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and niece, who joined in 1998. "I tried to stop them but it was impossible," he says, surveying the long red earthen mound where they lie buried. "They were indoctrinated in a manner that if you tried to argue with them they kept quiet. You ended up talking around like a mad person." Muteguya did manage to stop his relatives from selling the small family farm some 15 km from Kanungu, and late last year tried to convince his 16-year-old sister to leave the sect. "She came home to the village a few times and I think she had given up [on the sect] because my mother had been transferred to a different place. But they knew our home and they came and took her by force." That was around the time Kibwetere announced that Jesus had confirmed to him that the world would end on Dec. 31, 1999. When it didn't, he apparently set a new date and urged his devotees to sell whatever possessions they had left. Locals said the cult held a party--dubbed the Last Supper--at which 70 crates of soft drinks and three bulls were consumed. Two days later the cult members were dead.
Last week locals and relatives ignored a hand-drawn "Health Hazard, Out of Bounds" sign and filed into the cult's compound to pray for or simply gape at the dead. "Why do people join cults? What's in it for them?" asked Kibuuka Kalyesubula, a physician in a nearby hospital. "They're searching for something, I guess." In the well-ordered graveyard the cult used, rosemary plants and purple and white daisies push into the sun. A pile of scattered rubbish--children's report cards, a box of white chalk, blue pens, a small aluminum bell--proved to be from the cult's school, which the government had closed in 1998 after discovering that students were malnourished and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. "Starting in September there were rumors from here that the world was going to end," said the local Anglican bishop, John Ntegyereize. "I used to tell people, 'No, don't get worried. The end is not coming. The sun will rise from the east and set in the west just like any other day.' And on Jan. 1 it did. But some people still didn't believe."
The tragedy has focused attention on the rise of fringe Christian groups in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. Christianity is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else and in the next decade African Christians will outnumber European believers, leaving them second only to those in Latin America. Most of the tremendous growth is coming not in historic mainstream denominations like Anglican and Roman Catholic, but in newer, livelier, indigenous churches, which are springing up in cities and towns from Dakar to Cape Town. "People find the old churches a bit slow," says Winfred Muthoni, a shop assistant in a popular Nairobi Christian bookshop. "People want to get excited for God."
The new churches use local languages and mix traditional African spiritual beliefs with Pentecostal-style worship, including the use of drums, guitars and charismatic preachers. They also address local problems--poverty, drought, corruption--and offer a sense of belonging on a continent in which politicians often fail their people and where traditional social structures are coming apart. "People are looking for something, anything, to grasp onto," says Anna Kpaan of the United Methodist Church of Liberia, where a seven-year civil war has led to a boom in indigenous churches.
But while the new African churches may attract growing numbers of followers, mainstream denominations question the depth of faith in the newly converted, and the commitment of the churches to their flock. Like the Kanungu sect, many of the new churches are built around a charismatic and usually fade once that leader leaves or dies. "They exploit people who are looking for simplistic answers and are therefore very vulnerable," says Grace Kaiso, executive secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council. Splits within churches also cause problems. In November a woman was killed in Kisumu, Kenya, when supporters of one preacher clashed with supporters of another.
Most African churches are not as extreme as Uganda's doomsday cult, but the tragedy in Kanungu may slow the proliferation of indigenous churches, at least in Uganda. Last week the Ugandan government suspended registration of new religious organizations and said it would stop all-night services in existing churches. "We have to do something," says Muteguya, clutching his black-rimmed glasses in both hands. "It defeats my understanding as to why my family would abandon their home and come here for this. Why?" All Ugandans were asking the same question.
Index Page: Ten Commandments of God: Mass Suicide in Uganda
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