div CESNURCenter for Studies on New Religions


"Cult Deaths Recall Jonestown: Ugandan sect's similarities to Peoples Temple disputed"

by Don Lattin ("San Francisco Chronicle", April 1, 2000)

For Northern Californians, the mounting cult horror in Uganda revives a 1978 nightmare in another jungle, the murder-suicide in Jonestown of 914 members of San Francisco's Peoples Temple.
Yesterday, Ugandan police revised the number of deaths linked to an African doomsday sect to 924, surpassing the Guyana tragedy and making it one of the largest cult-related killings in modern history.
As the death toll mounts, religion scholars disagree as to whether the Ugandan sect is ``another Jonestown,'' a unique event, or just the latest chapter in Africa's bloody history of religious violence and tribal conflict.
Since an enormous church fire in Uganda on March 17, the remains of the members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God have been recovered from the charred rubble of the sect's sanctuary and pulled from a series of mass graves.
Local authorities initially called the deaths a ``mass suicide,'' but now believe many or most of the members were murdered -- perhaps when they began to question the failed doomsday prophecies of three sect leaders.
PEOPLES TEMPLE REDUX For Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, author of ``Cults in Our Midst,'' the carnage in Uganda is a Peoples Temple reprise.
Amid a mounting government and media probe, followers of the Rev. Jim Jones fled from San Francisco to the jungle in Guyana, where they and their leader died in a macabre ritual of murder and mass suicide. Many temple members willingly drank cyanide-laced ``Flavor- Aid;'' some had it poured down their throats, and others were shot.
In Uganda, the church was led by a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, an excommunicated Catholic layman, and a woman who claimed to receive messages from God and apocalyptic prophesies from the Virgin Mary. Authorities say two of those three leaders may still be alive.
In recent days, stories of abuses in the Ugandan sect have emerged that are reminiscent of those committed by Jones, a Christian socialist who was originally ordained in the Disciples of Christ, a mainline Protestant church. Both sects demanded strict obedience, demonized outsiders and promised impoverished members a utopian afterlife.
``It looks like the usual cult pattern where a corrupt person wants power and money. He gets this woman helper, and they start making ridiculous predictions that the world will end,'' Singer said. ``When it didn't end, people probably wanted their money so they could return to their villages.
``It's just like we've seen before,'' she added. ``Jonestown was also a constructed, engineered mass murder.''
Other experts warned against comparing the Uganda church to Peoples Temple, or to other notorious doomsday cults and mass suicide sects such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or Heaven's Gate, the UFO cult in Southern California.
J. Gordon Melton, who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara and is an authority on new religious movements, said most of the adult members at Jonestown were sincere ideological converts who decided that their religious and political views were worth dying for in an act of ``revolutionary suicide.''
That's different than what happened in Uganda, Melton said, where it appears that most of members were led into a series of traps and murdered.
``This is looking like a unique event that could become the largest mass murder in history, apart from war,'' Melton said. ``Killing this many people is heinous no matter why, but there's a difference between premeditated murder and psychopathology.''
Other scholars said it's important to view the Ugandan tragedy in its African context.
``In Africa, there is a long tradition of similar Christian movements going back 300 years,'' said David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, which monitors global church growth. ``Mass killings are not that unusual in tropical Africa. There are also large numbers of clergy who are eased out, or kicked out, of churches and start something on their own.''
Rosalind Hackett, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, said there are between 8,000 and 12,000 new religious movements in Africa. Most of them are offshoots from established Protestant or Catholic churches.
``There is tremendous religious ferment in Africa,'' said Hackett, who has studied the explosion of indigenous African churches. ``They range from humble storefronts to mega-churches based on the American model, from churches with illiterate leaders to pastors with Ph.D.s in nuclear physics.''
Hackett said many of these sects break away from mainstream churches over money, politics, style of worship, or the feeling that the mother church is not ``morally upright.''
Famine, poverty, violence and a rampaging AIDS epidemic have encouraged some churches to embrace an apocalyptic Christian vision that sees a new era of peace and harmony following a time of cataclysmic upheaval.
Doomsday theology also has been spread by Bible tracts, videos and satellite broadcasts from American televangelists and Pentecostal preachers, she said.
Hackett emphasized, however, that the overwhelming majority of African indigenous churches are making a positive contribution .
``They are helping people who are marginalized by the system,'' she said. ``Survival is what most of these churches are really all about.''

"Poisoned tea killed cult relatives"

by Michael Dynes and David Lister ("The Times", April 1, 2000)

The sickly stench of rotting flesh is still overpowering at the cult compound in the village of Rugazi where Ugandan authorities have exhumed nearly 150 bodies, most of them women and children. The site is one of five mass graves identified since a church inferno two weeks ago claimed the lives of 530 followers of an apocalyptic sect. The smell is so bad that many of the Ugandan prisoners drafted in to clear the graves were yesterday refusing to continue with their grisly task.
As Ugandan police called a temporary halt to the search after uncovering yet another grave, the death toll moved steadily closer to 1,000. It is expected to continue rising after the revelation yesterday by a former sect member that relatives who came searching for missing loved ones were themselves killed with cups of poisoned tea.
A further 4,000 members of the sect are still thought to be missing; there were suggestions yesterday that many of the victims may have come from neighbouring countries.
The death toll from the murders, which police believe were committed over the past three months, now stands at 924. The new figure takes the saga past the number of people who died in the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide.
The systematic disposal of cult members' relatives appears to have been carried out at most of the compounds run by the millennial Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. According to a former sect member, it was part of an elaborate plot to prevent members being rescued and revealing the "diabolical deeds" taking place inside the sect.
"If a person came to the camp looking for his or her relatives, the cult leaders welcomed them, gave them a seat in the visitor's room and a cup of tea," said the former cult member, who defected before fire swept through the movement's church in Kanungu two weeks ago. "The tea was poisoned. Later, he or she was taken to the cult offices when helpless and thrown into a pit."
This startling testimony came as Ugandan police, overwhelmed by the enormity of their task, said they would not exhume any more bodies until they had reinforced their team with forensic experts. They appealed for international help in their investigations, which have been hampered by a lack of equipment, poor planning and confusion.
Eric Naigambi, a Ugandan police spokesman, said: "From now on, we are going to secure sites and in future, when our logistics are in place, we will get proper clothes and makes sure a pathologist is at hand and materials available.
"This is because it has looked like we have just been compiling statistics and then reburying in the same manner as the cult leaders."
The discovery of a fifth mass grave, in Kyata, near the southwestern town of Fort Portal, came as police made another arrest, their second since the Kanungu church fire two weeks ago. Joseph Ssettuba Assemande, otherwise known as "The Bishop", was arrested in the southwestern district of Rakai. It was not immediately clear whether he had an active role in the sect.
The Ugandan authorities are struggling to understand how and why so many people met their deaths at the hands of Joseph Kibwetere, the cult leader described by his estranged wife as "a loving father and husband".
They are now convinced that the killings began in an attempt to prevent mass defections by people who had demanded their money and possessions back: they were required to surrender them on joining Mr Kibwetere's apocalyptic movement.
However, they are astonished that a handful of cult leaders could murder so many people without anyone suspecting foul play until six mutilated bodies were discovered at the Kanungu church's pit latrines days later. It now seems that explosives, petrol and acid were placed in the church to ensure that everyone inside was killed in the blaze as quickly as possible after consuming poisoned bread and wine at the altar.
Since the Kanungu church blaze there have been almost daily discoveries of more bodies as police have embarked on the macabre search for the sect's victims. Since last Friday, nearly 400 bodies, most of them strangled and the vast majority women and children, have been pulled out of five mass graves.
It has also emerged that the millennial cult leaders spent thousands of pounds on radio advertisements seeking new converts in the run-up to the fire which consumed more than 500 of their followers on March 17.
The radio advertisements began in early December, announcing that the world would come to an end on December 31, 1999, and that anyone who wanted to go to heaven should join the cult before the arrival of Armageddon. When the end of the world failed to materialise, the advertisements continued until a week before the Kanungu church fire.
Police suspect that the cult leaders may have hired or trained people to carry out the murders in the final weeks leading up to the church inferno.
"They must have had hired killers," George Kinyata, a local member of parliament said. "For a priest to kill this number of people he must have been wild or crazy."
Police said an unknown number of victims are believed to have come from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya, where Mr Kibwetere had recently opened new sect branches.
A nationwide manhunt is still underway for Mr Kibwetere and for Cledonia Mwerinde, a former prostitute and co-leader of the sect, both of whom are believed to have escaped before the Kanungu church fire.

"Ugandans Seek Answers to Mass Murder"

by Craig Nelson (Associated Press, April 1, 2000)

KANUNGU, Uganda (April 1) - ``Let us go and burn.'' The ominous words, scrawled across a blackboard in a sect compound where 530 people were incinerated two weeks ago, might have sufficed as a neat, if tragic, explanation for the fate of followers of a Christian fringe sect whose end-of-the-world prediction had failed to come true.
Then, three days later, the mutilated, strangled bodies of six men were discovered stuffed into a latrine pit nearby. That led to a search that unearthed 388 more bodies this week and transformed an apparent mass suicide into the deadliest cult tragedy of modern times.
No one is certain how the killings of 924 or more people were orchestrated, all within a 50-mile radius among luxuriant green hills and volcanic lakes in southwestern Uganda. But police think they know who masterminded them: Credonia Mwerinde, a 48-year-old sect leader known as ``the Programmer.'' Authorities believe she is still alive and on the run.
``It was that Mwerinde who had all those people killed,'' said the Rev. Paul Ikazire, a Roman Catholic priest who had left the church and joined Mwerinde's sect from 1991 to 1994. He said she was ``obsessed with the desire to obtain the property of her followers.'' In interviews this week across southwestern Uganda, friends and acquaintances - even a former common-law husband - portrayed Mwerinde as ingenious and greedy. Like an African version of the religious huckster Elmer Gantry, she founded a religious movement and sold her spiritual wares to the gullible and the searching, particularly among the ranks of disaffected Roman Catholics. She gained daunting power over nearly 1,000 yielding followers, many of whom apparently later became her victims.
Before that, she had risen from grinding poverty and a fourth-grade education to become the owner of a shop that sold banana beer and bootleg liquor, earning a reputation for promiscuity and cunning along the way.
``She was able to fool many people,'' said Nalongo Rukanyangira, a childhood friend in Kanungu, 160 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala.
As an ``apostle'' of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, Mwerinde secured the loyalty of sect members - and their possessions - by invoking visions she claimed to receive from the Virgin Mary.
It may have been no coincidence she acquired that faculty only weeks after her business went bankrupt in mid-1988, according to her former common-law husband and business partner, Eric Mazima.
Once recruits joined, they were subjected to a draconian regimen that divided mothers from children and husbands from wives and deprived followers of sleep and food. A code of silence that allowed members to communicate only with hand signals and a ban on visits from outsiders served to quell discontent and challenges to her authority.
Mwerinde's success was evident in her widening girth - an attractive sign of wealth to Ugandans - and the expansion of the sect compound at Kanungu from one to 12 buildings.
``She was fat and smart. She grew fatter,'' Mazima said.
On March 14, three days before the Kanungu inferno, Rukanyangira entered the compound and caught a glimpse of what her friend had become: Dressed completely in red, Mwerinde handed out red sandals to followers who, one by one, came in silence to kneel at her feet.
For all the sway Mwerinde held over sect members, what still defies certainty is why a charlatan may have become a mass murderer. The reason for the slayings one month ago at sect compounds in nearby Rugazi, Buhonga and Rushojwa is unknown.
No sect member, past or present, has confirmed the common belief: that the failure of the world to end Dec. 31 spurred members to demand belongings they had surrendered to Mwerinde to join the sect. In turn, the reasoning goes, that inspired an insurrection that was put down with murder.
Events leading up to the March 17 conflagration in Kanungu suggest a well-conceived plan - ``mass suicide'' as an alibi to cover up murders of nearly 400 men, women and children that already had been committed over the previous two weeks.
Starting in early March, the sect started liquidating its assets. Neighbors say movement members sold at least 100 head of cattle and communal furniture and held sales at two of the sect's local shops.
At 11 p.m. the night before the fire, the sect's farm manager walked into the Kanungu police station and left the title to the compound's land and a cryptic goodbye note, according to local constable Willy Abiku.
The next morning, local police say, a teen-age sect member named Peter saw a man nailing shut the wooden windows of the chapel.
At about 10 a.m., Annet Kamkune told police, she saw white-and-green-robed sect members processing from the newly built church to the chapel. They chased her away, saying she couldn't join them for ``prayers'' because she wasn't a member.
Within minutes, the narrow, brick-and-tin-roofed building was engulfed in flames. Running from his farm, the last words Pius Kabaireho heard from among the 530 people burning inside were, ``Oh Mama.''
If not for the bodies of six men found in the compound's latrine, the notion that a peculiar Christian sect with hopes for the end of the world had immolated itself might have prevailed.
Why were the six men slain? Did they kill the others, then fall victim themselves? How could so few people strangle and bury so many?
And one more mystery: Who wrote the words ``Let us go and burn'' and, inches away, ``Let us kill ourselves''?
As is the case with so many questions about this murder on a grand scale, authorities don't have the answer.

"Family says Uganda cult killer once loving father"

by Todd Pitman (Reuters, April 1, 2000)

KABUMBA, Uganda, April 1 (Reuters) - To his wife and children, Joseph Kibwetere was once a good husband, a loving father and a deeply religious man.
He lived peacefully with his family on a large estate in the rolling green hills of southern Uganda and rarely quarrelled with his family.
But that all changed when he and several Christian colleagues began a radical cult that is today blamed for the deaths of nearly 900 of its followers, half of them burnt alive in a small church earlier this month.
``This is what I can't imagine,'' Juvenal Rugambwa, Kwibetere's 36-year-old son, told Reuters in an interview.
``A father who loved people, who loved God. Now today you can't imagine a father who kills.'' Family members say the sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, evolved after Kwibetere visited the central Ugandan town of Mbarara in 1989.
There, he met a woman named Gredonia Mwerinda, a self-styled visionary who claimed to communicate directly with the Virgin Mary, and her sister.
Kwibetere's wife Theresa, who separated from him in 1992 after a 32-year marriage, described him as a ``loving man, cheerful, a man of good character.''
``But when he joined that group, he changed completely,'' she told Reuters on their family's farm in Kabumba.
Theresa and her children joined the cult, but she soon fell out with the newcomers, who called her a sinner, burning her clothes in what they said was a ``fire from heaven.'' ``He was influenced by those women that what I'm doing is wrong and what they're doing is right,'' she said, adding that the sect soon took priority over the family in her husband's eyes.
``They (our children) were mistreated and they were not given food, they used to starve. They nearly beat one of my daughters to death,'' she said.
``I was really surprised because such a thing couldn't have been done in people worshipping God. They pretended to be holy, but they weren't.'' The sect's odd regulations -- no soap, no speaking and no medical care -- alienated members of Joseph's own family, and five of his own sons and daughters ran away.
``The women claimed to be visionaries. They claimed to be seeing the Virgin Mary and they told Joseph what was to be done,'' Rugambwa said.
``But his followers mistreated us. They started beating us, and whenever they did they said it was the Virgin Mary beating us.''
Rugambwa led a drive to free the farm of sect members, including his own father, with sticks and stones in 1992. By then, 250 followers were living on the estate.
The last time the family saw Joseph was in 1995, when he came for the funeral of one of their sons who died of natural causes.
Today, nobody can say for sure if Joseph Kwibetere is dead or alive, but his family is not optimistic. His wife believes he died in the fire at Kanungu earlier this month. His son visited the scene and found a ring on one of the fingers that resembled one his father used to wear.
Kibwetere's wife and family are now guarded by a lone armed soldier posted at the house to prevent possible revenge attacks by relatives who lost members of their own families.
Despite everything, Theresa remains strongly Catholic. Her house is adorned with colourful framed pictures of Jesus and Mary, as well as black and white photos of Joseph Kibwetere with Catholic bishops in better times.

"Police suspend body exhuming"

("New Vision" [Kampala], April 1, 2000)

Exhuming of the remaining bodies of the doomsday cult followers has been suspended until the Police and prisoners engaged in the gruesome exercise get protective gear, reports John Kakande.
The Minister of State for Internal Affairs, Sarah Kiyingi, directed the suspension yesterday through a letter to the Inspector General of Police, John Kisembo and Commissioner General of Prisons, Joseph Etima.
Kiyingi, told The New Vision yesterday that she had written to Kisembo and Etima on the matter but declined to give details.
Police said yesterday that they had found another suspected mass grave at a cult member's house near the church where 500 people were burned to death.
Etima said yesterday that instructions had been issued to prisons officers not to let prisoners without protective gear exhume decomposing bodies of the cult followers.
"We have suspended use of the prisoners until they are provided protective clothing," he said.
A total of 929 followers of the  Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God headed by  Joseph Kibwetere have been confirmed dead.
Half the bodies of the victims were found in mass graves in the church and homes of the doomsday cult leaders.

"Kanungu prayer date set"

("New Vision" [Kampala], April 1, 2000)

THE Government has decided to hold an inter-denominational prayer service at Kanungu, on Sunday, the Minister for the Presidency, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, has said.
In a press statement issued yesterday, Rugunda said  the prayers were  to begin at mid-day and are to be conducted by religious leaders.
He said the Vice-President,, Dr. Specioza Kazibwe, will officiate at the ceremony. "She (Kazibwe) will deliver a message of condolence from the Government to the surviving relatives and assure the country that action is being taken in pursuit of the criminal perpetrators of the tragic killing, so that those responsible are brought to book," Rugunda said.
At least 530 followers of the Movement for Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God perished in what was suspected suicide in the Kanungu inferno.
But the number of the dead has risen to nearly a thousand  following the discovery of mass graves in various places belonging to the cult.
Reports said very few families had come forward to make inquiries about their missing family members, which could have helped the Police draw up a list..
The Police said they were to issue an international arrest warrant for  five cult leaders including Joseph Kibwetere.

"Police compile victims list"

("New Vision" [Kampala], April 1, 2000)

The Police are compiling a list of victims of Kanungu cult murder. The public has been urged to report their missing relatives or friends, reports Alfred Wasike.
"We have opened a book at the Rukungiri Police Station. We are compiling a list of missing persons. We are trying to created a reliable data base on who perished at the hands of these killers," a police spokesperson, Eric Naigambi, said yesterday.
The Police said several families who lost relatives feared to come forward because they would be linked with the cult.
"We have found out that many people who lost their relatives are fearing to talk about it. They knew that their relatives had told them that they were going to heaven," Naigambi said.
It is feared that more than 500 people perished in an inferno after the cult followers barricaded themselves into a church building before setting it on fire  at the cult's headquarters at Kataate, on March 17.
Several hundred of the followers bodies have since been dug out of several mass graves in homes of the cult leaders in southwestern Uganda.
The New Vision recently published a list of several hundreds of members of the cult suspected to have died in the fire.

"Cult membership was reserved for the rich"

("New Vision" [Kampala], April 1, 2000)

LEADERS of the doomsday cult rejected poor people who wanted to join the cult, a witness has said.
Night Nalongo, 22, told The New Vision at Nyakishojwa, Mitooma, that one of the cult leaders, Celedonia Mwerinde, rejected her because she could not raise the membership fee of sh250,000.
She said her co-wife, Florence Kyomugisha and her son, Ambrose Musinguzi, died in the inferno. They joined the cult in 1992.
Nalongo's house is near the Rushojwa camp where the Police on Thursday retrieved 81 bodies from a mass grave.
She quoted Mwerinde as saying that there was no place for the poor in the cult.

"Cult wanted Radio Uganda"

("New Vision" [Kampala], April 1, 2000)

KAMPALA-Cult leader Joseph Kibwetere planned to start  propaganda programmes on Radio Uganda, the Programmes Controller, Julius Asiimwe, said yesterday.. "A nun and two men belonging to the cult got in touch with our part-time  producer Stephen Lupiya and wanted to give the radio business. But we had not run a single advert when the Kanungu incident happened. They were to contact Lupiya again to finalise the arrangements,"    he said. "Lupiya can tell in which language the programmes were to be run and for how long.  But as a radio station, we have a policy to scrutinise programmes and messages   to be aired," Asiimwe said. He said Lupiya could identify the nun and the men.

"Entebbe rejected Kibwetere church"

by Joyce Namutebi ("New Vision" [Kampala], April 1, 2000)

LOCAL councillors in Katabi, Entebbe, said on Thursday that Joseph Kibwetere wanted to set up a church there but the councillors and the Catholic Church leaders shunned him.
The local councillors, who preferred anonymity, said Kibwetere followers in Katabi abandoned the cult in 1997 on being told to move to Rukungiri.
However, two boys, Fred Rucungura and Edward Sewava, who went to Kanungu with their grandmother, Katalina Naava, are suspected to have died.
A councillor said after the leaders had conducted workshops for their followers, they were given five days by the then priest of Bugonga, Fr. Kayita to quit the area.
"They came for a letter of transfer but I refused to give it to them," the councillor said.
He said when the leaders of the group sold their things and left, other followers abandoned the cult and rejoined the Catholic Church.

"Prophecy's Price" by Karl Vick

("The Washington Post", April 1, 2000)

KASESE, Uganda –– The man in black came into John Musoke's shop on March 15, clutching a rosary and asking for battery acid. A lot of it.
"I have a problem," said the distinguished-looking older man, who signed the receipt "Father Dominic." He bargained a bit before paying $167 for more than 13 gallons of sulfuric acid, telling a curious Musoke that it was to replenish batteries used for power at a remote seminary.
"I pestered," Musoke said, "because it was a bit too much."
Two days later and 60 miles away in Kanungu, a fireball turned at least 330 people to bone and ash in a cramped concrete building with boarded-up windows. Poring over the doomsday cult's compound a day or so later, police found the receipt. But the real nature of Father Dominic Kataribabo's "problem" would not become apparent for another week:
It was bodies--hundreds of them.
Ugandan authorities said they have little solid evidence who killed at least 725 people whose corpses have been recovered since March 17, most packed into narrow, deep mass graves still being unearthed around southwestern Uganda. But suspicion has locked firmly on the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a secretive organization that over a decade moved from fundamentalist revivalism to classic cult to what police now call a conspiracy to commit mass murder.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Thursday that documents listing total membership suggest the number of dead could reach into the thousands.
The search for clues leads into the heart of the cult itself. The leaders' doomsday prophecy foretold "rivers running red" and food turning to poison. Former members recall filling out forms asking them to commit to martyrdom.
"Yes, I was ready to die," said Abdon Bishoboorokire, 54, who left the cult in 1994.
But many of the same former believers said they are as stunned as anyone by the body count. After all, the idea of enduring the strict rules of the cult--no speaking, no drinking, no sex, no smoking, no soap and precious little food--was to build the spiritual fortitude to survive the apocalypse that would kill everyone else.
"They were convinced they would stay in the Holy Land but the rest of the world would die," said Yacob Tibanyendera, 67, who lost his wife, three daughters and 16 grandchildren to the sect. He believes they are all dead.
The Ten Commandments sect emerged from two forces, experts and officials said. One was the search for relief from the daily hardship most Africans endure. Christian church membership is growing faster on Africa than on any other continent, and the fastest growth has been among charismatic ministries that provide "easy answers to the difficult questions," said Grace Kaiso, executive secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council.
"And there's the question of AIDS, people seeing so many people die. And there are these [scripture] passages that refer to the end of the world. The climate was right for marshaling some of these sects."
The cult emerged from a prolonged fever of religious visions in eastern central Africa in the late 1970s. A woman reported seeing the Virgin Mary on a soccer field in Kibeo, Rwanda, and as pilgrims flocked to the site other visions were reported. In 1989, a woman named Credonia Mwerinde came to the home of a failed Ugandan politician, Joseph Kibwetere, to relate what she had seen: the Virgin Mary, complaining that the world was off course because people had departed from the Ten Commandments.
Kibwetere listened, then invited the woman and two friends into his home, his wife told reporters. By the time she ordered them to leave, for beating their children and laying down arbitrary rules, a partnership had been formed: Kibwetere out front, eventually donning the robes of a Catholic bishop, and Mwerinde behind the scenes.
"Kibwetere could not give orders as such," said Francis Byaruhanga, 45, a former cult member. "He was put there as the leader, but the whole program was Mwerinde, that woman."
Their message, delivered in area Catholic churches, brought a steady stream of adherents, including several priests. At the first service Bishoboorokire attended, one of Mwerinde's associates placed her foot on the chest of everyone there, to stomp the evil spirits out of them. Paulina Zikanga said she signed on after acolytes visited her house to drive away the "demons" that had been making her children sick.
"I joined because when they preached the Ten Commandments, I felt I had in fact lost them, so I had to join that group," Bishoboorokire said. When their local priests, including Dominic Kataribabo, signed up, "the people had to follow."
Believers assembled under leaders in compounds off limits to neighbors, at first only to work, then to live. The Catholic Church was declared an enemy, badly in need of reform. Their own rules, they were told, came from the Virgin Mary, as channeled through Mwerinde.
No medical care, the Virgin said. Eat only one meal on Friday and Monday. Stray and "the Virgin Mary and Jesus will curse you," one ex-member recalled being told.
It was the Holy Mother, Mwerinde said, who decided that all followers must sell whatever they own and hand over the proceeds to the church. Those who did were given green, black or white gowns.
That order served to thin the growing ranks. One priest defected with about 70 followers.
"Their preaching was so good, but taking the money was a problem," said Claudio Sekibibi, 64, adding that he also had trouble with another proclamation: that on a specific date, the world would end for everyone but them.
"They used to say in the new world it would be like the time of Adam and Eve: no clothes, no cultivating, no work," he said. His wife, who remained in the cult, continued to believe.
"I was telling her all the time, 'Jesus went to heaven after death. Mary, his mother, went to heaven after death. Who are you to go to heaven without dying?' " Sekibibi said.
Taken in tandem, the two prophecies would prove combustible. Believers took it in stride when the world did not end as predicted in 1992. But when the next deadline passed, in 1995, "people started grumbling," said Zikanga, who left the cult in 1998. "They were insisting that if the world doesn't end, [the cult] should refund their money." The reckoning was put off until December 1999. As membership grew with the approach of the millennium, adherents were dispersed to compounds nestled throughout the lush hills between the borders of Congo and Rwanda.
At Buhunga, where 153 bodies would later be unearthed, new members were indoctrinated. At Father Dominic's estate in Rugazi, where 155 corpses would be found, members attended courses in a primitive dormitory built behind his 10-room house. An interior wall bears a poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of 22 recent Catholic converts by a pagan king: "Uganda's martyrs" were held up as role models in the cult, former members said.
"As we had 22 martyrs, we expect to get big numbers from you," Byaruhanga recalled being told by the leaders. " 'You will be martyrs of Uganda.' That was eight years ago. They had been planning this from the beginning." The group remained in relatively good standing with most local officials, so good that police have detained an assistant district commissioner who reportedly defended the group when residents complained. In 1997, one senior official attended the dedication of a primary school on the sect's headquarters compound, a tightly packed complex on a hillside adjoining the village of Kanungu, 200 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala. The land had belonged to Mwerinde's late father. Uganda's New Vision newspaper reported that the school was later closed when children were found to be sleeping uncovered on a dirt floor.
Miles away, on the farm of lay leader Joseph Nymurinda, the village chairman complained to his superiors about the number of children at the cult compound there, most unaccompanied by their parents, few attending school. Of the 81 bodies recovered from a pit behind the main house on Thursday, 44 were children.
Members' isolation was total, but not uninterrupted. Cult members might come home to their families for two or three months a year. And there was a break of perhaps six months in 1998 because of dangers presented by nearby rebels.. But the interval also coincided with the dates another Ugandan newspaper, the Monitor, reported Kibwetere was receiving treatment in a Kampala mental hospital for bipolar disorder, or manic depression.
When cult members returned to the fields, Mwerinde declared they should not plant crops, such as cassava, that take a year to mature because the world might end before harvest. Instead, they cultivated beans, potatoes and other foods that could be ready in three or four months.
Shops were set up to sell maize flour the cult would no longer need. In the closing months of 1999, members' clothes could be had for pennies.
Believers talked with former believers, asking them to reconsider, warning that time was short. Zikanga batted away one pitch in August, then in December ran into Father Dominic on her way to church.
"They tried to convince me that they were going to heaven, and if I refused and didn't make it to heaven it was not their fault," she said.
Zikanga demurred, but others were drawn in. Sekibibi last saw his wife the morning of Dec. 22. Tibanyendera's wife and daughters left with the children on Dec. 26 for "the Holy Land," as the Kanungu compound was known.
Whether disillusionment came instead of deliverance on the dawn of Jan. 1 is mostly speculation. Witnesses have been hard to come by.
"Maybe there came a time when [followers] wanted their money," said Tibanyendera, echoing the prevailing police theory, "and [cult leaders] killed them."
Behind the dormitory on Father Dominic's property, a fence went up around the garden where 74 bodies would later be exhumed. A similar barrier blocked Night Nalongo's view of the cult compound owned by Nymurinda. But in January, she said, the pickup truck that sometimes visited the compound in the middle of the night began coming more often, at least twice a week. The visits continued through February.
Whatever was happening in private, the cult leadership kept up a brave front.
It mailed out fresh copies of its manifesto, "A Timely Message From Heaven: The End of the Present Time." Doomsday was pushed back to Dec. 31, 2000.
And in March, members were summoned again to Kanungu. Cult leaders told local officials the gathering was to be a celebration, slated for Saturday, March 18. Late on Friday morning, a bell rang summoning the faithful to the building with the boarded-over windows. The explosion was heard a half-hour later, and the neighbors who sprinted from a quarter mile away found bodies still burning.
But no one was left alive.

"Uganda police say three cult leaders held in 1998"

by Adrian Blomfield (Reuters, April 1, 2000)

FORT PORTAL, Uganda, April 1 (Reuters) - As Ugandan police searched on Saturday for more victims of a Christian sect that may have killed some thousand members, a local police official said three of its leaders were briefly detained in 1998.
The senior official, who refused to be identified, said the three cult leaders had been detained for promoting ``poverty.''
``They were telling people to sell their property and possessions. They looked to be poor and humble because they didn't carry any belongings. They only carried the Bible,'' he said.
He was speaking as one of several police teams involved in the investigation searched the home of John Katebalirwe, a prominent member of the cult at Sweswe village, near Fort Portal, about 100 km (62 miles) west of the capital Kampala where the three leaders were detained two years ago.
The police teams have been helped in their search by prisoners working bare-foot and hired labourers. However on Saturday the Commissioner of Prisons, Joseph Etima, was quoted as saying the prisoners were being stood down until they could be provided with protective clothing.
The Ugandan government says evidence found so far suggests that failed politician Joseph Kibwetere's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments had murdered nearly a thousand people, many of them children.
The sect's leaders apparently began killing members, who had been urged to give their worldly goods to the cause, after they started asking for their money back when the world did not end last December 31 as predicted.
Around 500 people were found burned to death at the sect's headquarters in Kanungu, southwestern Uganda on March 17.
Since then police have discovered 389 bodies, mostly women and children, in mass graves at Rugazi, Rushojwa and Buhunga, all in the southwest, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
The cult found easy support in a poor country ravaged by AIDS and with a history of fanatical religious sects, the most famous being Alice Lakwena's Holy Spirit Movement which led hundreds of its followers to death believing magic oil would protect them against government bullets.
Police said on Friday they would stop digging for bodies until they have beefed up their investigative team, and appealed for international help to carry on the probe.
They said they would concentrate on checking suspected sites and guard them until they decide how to proceed.
The announcement followed the discovery of a fourth suspected mass grave in a cult member's house at Kanungu.
Police spokesman Eric Naigambi told Reuters on Saturday that police had begun compiling a comprehensive list of people who had been found at the various sites with the help of relatives.
``We wanted to compare the queries with what they found in the registers at Kanungu. There have been several responses countrywide,'' Naigambi said.
``We think these people knew specifically where their relatives were going. It would give us an indication whether we have to search more or not.''
The Ugandan government will hold an inter-denominational prayer service at Kanungu on Sunday which will be attended by Vice-President Speciosa Kazibwe.
Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet who claimed to talk directly to Jesus, has been described by associates as a violent man prone to seizures and was briefly detained in a mental institution for manic depression in 1998.
He is said to have been under the influence of Gredonia Mwerinda, a former prostitute who claimed she talked to the Virgin Mary.
They were assisted by ``Father'' Dominic Kataribabo, a former Catholic priest with a masters degree in theology and a reputation as a studious and religious man.

"Ugandan Death Toll Reaches 924"

by Hanry Wasswa (Associated Press, April 1, 2000)

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) - Struggling with a lack of equipment after uncovering a string of mass graves, police are regrouping before tackling yet another compound where more victims of a doomsday cult may be buried.
The death toll from the mass killing now stands at 924, after police raised the number who died when a cult church was set ablaze with hundreds of members sealed inside. Since then, mass graves at three other compounds have uncovered more bodies.
The government called a day of prayer Sunday to ``console surviving relatives and assure the country that action is being taken in pursuit of the criminal perpetrators.''
Government and religious leaders will attend a memorial service Sunday in Kanungu, the village where the cult slaying was first revealed with the church inferno.
While Ugandan authorities promised to apprehend the perpetrators of the stabbings, burnings and stranglings, investigators showed no signs of being able to track down sect leaders or even of being able to confirm which - if any - survived.
Investigators indefinitely postponed plans Friday to search a fifth sect compound, deep in a rainforest near the Ruwenzori Mountains along the Congolese border. Police said they would wait until they had proper equipment.
Sarah Kiyingi, deputy minister for internal affairs, said the search for bodies was suspended temporarily because police lack proper gear for exhuming bodies.
Authorities have come under criticism in Uganda's press for using inmate labor to dig up the bodies, with some newspapers faulting police for failing to give inmates rubber gloves and other protective equipment.
Internal Affairs Minister Edward Rugumayo said investigators want prisoners to be properly dressed and well-prepared.
In Kanungu, forensic investigators examined a cemetery overlooking the main compound of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, to try to determine if any graves there might contain more than one body. Finding nothing suspicious, they did not dig.
Police then retreated to the faraway capital of Kampala to await pathology reports on some of the bodies already discovered, police pathologist Thaddeus Barungi said.
Authorities initially reported at least 330 charred bodies were found inside the ruins of a makeshift church in the sect's main compound. On Friday, they raised the toll to 530 in what was believed to have been a gasoline-fueled inferno in the sealed church.
Hundreds of bodies subsequently found at three other sites apparently were killed after what had been the cult's prediction that the world would end Dec. 31. Some victims appeared to have been knifed or strangled. Hundreds were children, although the devastation at the cult church and the possibility of more graves means a precise count will never be known.
Police spokesman Eric Naigambi said police have started trying to compile a list of the missing.
``We are trying to create a reliable database on who perished at the hands of these killers,'' he said.
``We have found out that many people who lost their relatives are fearing to talk about it,'' Naigambi said. ``They knew that their relatives had told them they were going to heaven.''
The toll surpasses the November 1978 Peoples Temple tragedy at Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana. The Jonestown mass suicide and killings claimed 913 lives, including that of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, journalists and a few defectors shot to death as they tried to board a flight out.
Ugandan police are pursuing international arrest warrants for Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and three other suspected cult leaders. It was not clear if any or all of them escaped the killings or the fire that followed.
Ugandan police have detained a second person for questioning in connection with the deaths. Police said the man detained had family members who were followers of the cult but gave no further details.
The cult leaders drew largely on disaffected Roman Catholics in Uganda, leading many to give up their land to take up a strict doctrine of fasting, silence and prayer. At least one leader was an excommunicated Catholic priest.
Stanley Kenyatta, a member of Uganda parliament for the Rukungiri district in the area of the killings, said Friday he had been told the sect had branches in Tanzania and Rwanda as well, with plans to move into Kenya.

"Uganda calls day of prayer"

(BBC, April 1, 2000)

The Ugandan Government has called a day of prayer on Sunday for the more than 900 people now known to have died at the hands of the doomsday cult, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The Ugandan president's chief of staff, Ruhakana Rugunda, said the aim was to "console surviving relatives and assure the country that action is being taken in pursuit of the criminal perpetrators".
Government and religious leaders will attend a memorial service at the village of Kanungu, where a church inferno on 17 March first drew attention to the tragedy.
Digging stops
On Friday, Ugandan police temporarily suspended digging for victims pending the arrival of more equipment and personnel.
Investigators had found another suspected mass grave, at Kyata, near Fort Portal, in the south-western district of Kaborole.
But police spokesman Eric Naigambi told the French news agency AFP that further preparations were necessary before exhumations could begin.
"From now on, we are going to secure sites and in future, when our logistics are in place, we will get proper clothes and make sure a pathologist is at hand and materials available, so that we can have an organised reburial of bodies," he said.
"It has looked like we have just been compiling statistics and then reburying in the same manner as the cult leaders," he said.
Investigators are going to continue trying to identify new sites. So far, mass graves have been found in four separate locations.
The new site is several hundred kilometres away from the district where the other mass graves were found.
Second arrest
A police spokesman, John Kimera, has told reporters that a second person is being detained in connection with their investigations.
The man, Joseph Sssettuba Ssemande, was arrested on Thursday in the village of Kijjumba. "He is helping police with investigations, but so far no evidence has been found to link him to the deaths," Mr Kimera.
He said the suspect's relatives were members of the cult.
The first man arrested by police was a district official, Amooti Mutazindwa, who is suspected of being a member of the cult.
He is alleged to have helped in the registration of the cult.
Mainly women's corpses
On Thursday, investigators discovered a mass grave in Rushojwa, also in the south-west, containing the corpses of 81 people. All but three of the corpses were women and children.
Police are treating the deaths as mass murder, and an international search is under way for four cult leaders believed to be on the run.
They said the bodies found at Rushojwa seemed to have been murdered within the past five weeks.
Two of the corpses still had ropes around their necks, indicating that they were probably strangled.
Local warning
The leader of the local council, Kapere Lauden, told reporters that he had warned the authorities about the cult after the mysterious deaths of several children.
"They could not satisfy me that these children died of natural causes," he said.
"They could not provide medical reports," he added.
He said nothing was done because the cult had been registered as a non-governmental organisation.
BBC correspondent Kathy Jenkins says investigators are struggling to cope with the scale of their macabre discoveries, and more questions are being raised at the highest level in Uganda over how so many people could have died without suspicions being aroused.

Index Page: Ten Commandments of God: Mass Suicide in Uganda

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Revised last: 9-04-2000