div CESNURCenter for Studies on New Religions


Uganda Survivor Tells of When the World Didn't End

by Ian Fisher ("The New York Times", April 3, 2000)

KANUNGU, Uganda, April 2 -- The police say he appears to be the only survivor, and today Peter Ahimbisibwe, 17, said members of a doomsday cult in Uganda began to rise at church services after Jan. 1 and to ask cult leaders a difficult question.
Where will we live, Mr. Ahimbisibwe said they asked, now that we have sold our property and the world has not ended, as the cult had predicted?
"The people who sold their property would inquire one by one," Mr. Ahimbisibwe said. "Whoever would inquire, they would disappear."
Mr. Ahimbisibwe allowed himself to be interviewed for only a few minutes and did so reluctantly just before a large prayer service here today in memory of the 924 cult members whose bodies have been discovered in recent days. After the service, he refused to talk further unless reporters paid him.
If true, his account appears to be the first corroboration of what the police speculate is the motive for one of the largest mass killings in recent times: that a mutiny was brewing over money among members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
Many members had sold their property and turned over the proceeds to the cult leaders, on the promise that the world would end as the year 2000 arrived.
Several investigators declined to speculate today whether Mr. Ahimbisibwe's entire account was credible. But they have interviewed him and did little to discount his story, saying they believe that he left the camp here the morning of March 17, before the fire in which Ugandan officials say 530 people died, including his mother and sister. One investigator said, however, that Mr. Ahimbisibwe occasionally becomes "confused."
On a day when religious and political leaders gathered here to take stock of so much death, another resident of Kanungu gave an eerie account of one of the cult's last days.
Nolongo Rukanyangira, 48, a businesswoman who often rented out her pickup truck to the cult, said in an interview that she visited the compound three days before the fire after taking cult members shopping for milk, bread and soft drinks.
Inside the compound, she said she found one of the top leaders, Credonia Mwerinde, dressed in an all-red gown handing out red sandals to members. She said Ms. Mwerinde usually wore a green gown with a white head-cover. She said she did not understand what was happening, though she said Ms. Mwerinde, who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary, invited her to come to the compound the morning of the fire.
After a week in which investigators uncovered graves in three towns filled with hundreds of bodies, more than 1,000 people, including family members of the victims, gathered today on a soccer field here not far from the compound. Surrounded by high green hills, religious leaders -- Catholic, Protestant and Muslim -- prayed for the dead and urged the living not to be fooled by cults promising quick relief from poverty.
Uganda's vice president, Dr. Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, apologized for the government's failure to stop the cult before the deaths, which the police originally said they believed were a mass suicide. "These were callously, well-orchestrated mass murders perpetrated by a network of diabolic, malevolent criminals masquerading as religious people," she said.
Dr. Kazibwe, a physician, raised an issue often taboo in Africa: mental illness. Joseph Kibwetere, the cult's main leader, was reportedly diagnosed as a manic depressive and was hospitalized in 1998. She said she yearned for the day when "mental health is made an important subject and taken as a priority."
Theresa Kibwetere, the cult leader's estranged wife, also stood up briefly before the crowd. She did not speak but afterward said her priest suggested that she come to the service. "What should I have done?" she said, and then, referring to the cult, "I disliked what they did."
The police said today that they had suspended the search for more bodies, though they believe that there are several more mass graves around the section of southwestern Uganda where the cult was active.
In fact, investigators say they believe that there are many more bodies in a pit latrine on the site of the compound where they already found six bodies. A local official says firefighters digging for the bodies there got tired after retrieving the six bodies and "deceived" officials by saying there were no more. The latrine still smells strongly of rotting flesh.
A police spokesman, Assuman Mugenyi, said tonight that government officials were requiring the diggers and investigators to wear protective gear while unearthing mass graves. So far, though, most of the work has been done by barefoot prisoners.
Mr. Mugenyi said the police were waiting for the protective gear so they could resume digging.
In the interview, Mr. Ahimbisibwe, who is from Kanungu, described the final few days of the cult. He did not describe exactly how members who questioned the selling of their property "disappeared," though he said he had no indication that people were dying, other than several who had been ill.
In the final week, he said, cult leaders -- particularly Ms. Mwerinde -- had urged them to prepare for the end of this world and the start of a better one for believers. But there was no talk of mass suicide, he said.
"The followers were not told about death," he said. "But they were expecting to be taken."
Mr. Ahimbisibwe said his mother and sister had lived at the cult compound here for about a year. He had only lived there for a week, though he said he was a frequent visitor. He said that in the final week, he did not see Mr. Kibwetere at the compound. The police speculate that Mr. Kibwetere, Ms. Mwerinde and two other cult leaders may still be alive.
Mr. Ahimbisibwe said he left the cult compound at 7:30 the morning of the fire. He said he had no feeling that something bad was about to happen but left only because he was hungry. After several days of feasting, cult members had fasted the day before.
On his way out, he said he ran into a cult member named Hillary, a man he described as a fervent believer, who was carrying a hammer and nails. Mr. Ahimbisibwe said he assumed later that Hillary was the one who nailed shut the windows on the church to prevent people from escaping the flames.

"Police Seek Logistics To Handle Bodies"

(New Vision [Kampala], April 3, 2000)

Kampala - The Police are seeking logistics to handle the rotting bodies being dug up from doomsday cult Joseph Kibwetere's mass graves so they can be disposed of decently, reports Alfred Wasike.
"We need resources to assist us in this difficult task. We need to bury the victims decently. We may have to appeal for local and international assistance to help us in the investigation of the mass murder," deputy police spokesperson Eric Naigambi said yesterday.
Vice-President Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe yesterday presided over prayers at the mass grave in which more than 500 victims, including children of the March 17, 2000 Kanungu inferno were buried a couple of metres away from the church building where they had been burnt.
The Police last week suspended the exhumation of more dead bodies until sufficient logistics have been assembled. Sarah Kiyingi, the state minister for internal affairs, announced the new policy.
More than 100 rotting bodies have been exhumed from several mass graves, including those from the homes of the cult leaders in south-western Uganda.
They were reburied by poorly dressed prisoners after Police pathologists examined them, attracting condemnation.

"Uganda apologizes for cult deaths"

by Adrian Blomfield (The Inquirer [Philadelphia] April 3, 2000)

KANUNGU, Uganda - Ugandans mourned yesterday for more than 900 people police say were murdered by leaders of a Christian doomsday sect and heard a senior government official call for international help in tracking them down.
Speaking after laying a wreath at a mass grave where the remains of more than 500 people were buried two weeks ago, Vice President Speciosa Kazibwe said she believed the cult leaders were on the run.
"I believe they are still alive. The whole world has to help us catch them," Kazibwe said. "They had started to spread to Tanzania and Kenya, and we have started investigations to see if they have connections with Europe. This was murder; I am satisfied with that."
Kazibwe said she estimated that more than 1,000 people, many of them women and children, had been killed by the cult leaders. The official toll is 924, but Kazibwe said investigators were likely to find more mass graves.
Authorities think the key leaders may have survived the slaughter, fleeing with belongings their followers had surrendered to join the sect.
In her speech at the memorial service, Kazibwe apologized to people who lost their relatives and said similar religious sects would be investigated to ensure that what happened at Kanungu would not occur elsewhere.
"Government regrets the loss of such large numbers of our people through the seduction, intrigue and manipulation of some unscrupulous hardened criminals, the likes of [cult leader Joseph] Kibwetere and his accomplices," Kazibwe said. "I would like therefore to tender the apologies of government in this." Uganda's heavily populated Kigezi district, where the sect had its headquarters at Kanungu, is one of the nation's poorest.
Analysts say its poverty, the impact of AIDS, and regional instability - it borders Rwanda and Congo - provided fertile ground for the sect's message that the world was about to end.
Kazibwe said she found it hard to console the bereaved. "What other consolation can we give to people when children, unsuspecting women and men were murdered?" she asked.
Hundreds of residents, many of them relatives of the victims, attended yesterday's interdenominational service in the village. A March 17 blaze inside a sealed church in the village burned at least 530 members and revealed the cult slayings to the world.
Police initially described the incident as mass suicide, but after the discovery of four mass graves containing nearly 400 more bodies - with evidence that they were strangled, poisoned or hacked to death - they are treating the case as murder.
Joseph Kibwetere's wife, Theresa, has said that he had been a good husband and a deeply religious man until falling under the influence of former prostitute Credonia Mwerinde, who claimed to speak to the Virgin Mary and who was the sect's second in command.
However, former associates have described Kibwetere as a violent man prone to seizures who was briefly detained in a mental institution in 1988 for manic depression.

"Leaders of Ugandan doomsday cult motivated by self-enrichment"

(Agence France Presse, April 3, 2000)

KANUNGU, Uganda, April 3 (AFP) - Ugandan authorities believe the leaders of a doomsday cult linked to the deaths of around 1,000 people are still alive, while those who knew them suggest self-enrichment was their motivation.
"I think they are still alive," said Ugandan Vice President Speciosa Kazibwe during a prayer service Sunday in this southwestern town where some 400 members of the movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in a fire in their church on March 17.
From the testimony of various witnesses, it now appears that Credonia Mwerinde, the cult's so-called "programmer" rather than its "prophet" Joseph Kibwetere, a former mental patient and one-time politician, was the driving force behind the murderous movement.
Mwerinde presented herself as a former prostitute, an unverified detail whose reference to Mary Magdalene would nevertheless not be lost on those familiar with the Bible.
Mwerinde convinced cult members and would-be members that the Virgin Mary regularly appeared to her with messages.
"They exploited illiteracy and ignorance of thousands of people in remote places," said the vice president, who described Kibwetere as "very intelligent" and "mentally ill." Kibwetere and his "12 apostles" recruited numerous local leaders to convince villagers to join the cult, which predicted the end of the world, first in 1992, and then at the turn of the millenium.
In Sweswe, an isolated mountainous hamlet some 300 kilometers (180 miles) north of Kanungu, John Katebalire, a man of lowly means, was one such recruiter.
He gathered people in his mud and straw house. If he ever met Kibwetere or Mwerinde, he did so very discreetly, according to villagers.
But he believed in their preachings and died with his daughter, according to police, in the Kanungu blaze.
One witness told the New Vision newspaper that the cult turned away the destitute.
Night Nalongo recalled that Mwerinde sent her away because she could not raise the 250,000 shillings (70 dollars) entry fee. Mwerinde told her there was no room for the poor in the cult.
Ever evoking the Virgin Mary, Mwerinde told would-be members to sell all their possessions and give the proceeds to the sect.
The vast majority of those who died in Kanungu or who were murdered and buried in five mass graves on the grounds of other prominent members in the southwest of the country came from other parts of Uganda and even other nearby countries.
Hundreds of itinerant people, including children without their parents, were housed in transit camps.
It appears that when the world failed to end, leaders planned the murders to avoid the increasing pressure of members' questions and demands for refunds.
A villager in Sweswe expained that on March 10, a week before the Kanungu inferno, Katebalirwe sold her his house for a pittance to raise the fare to travel to Kanungu, where he said he expected to meet Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Just outside Kanungu, in the village of Shunga, Eric Mazima, 70, who was once married to Mweride, is certain his former wife was the brains behind the cult.
He left her 12 years ago, after she tried to convince him that the image of the Virgin Mary was visible on a rock face, and that Mary was speaking to her.
"She must have been in charge because she could convince a lot of people," he said.
"She had a lot of followers. I would never imagine she could be able to kill but after all these crimes, I can believe she was able," said Mazina, who has seen nothing of his wife since the separation.

"The power behind the cult"

("The Daily Telegraph", April 2, 2000)

The sour stench of death strikes even before you approach the freshly churned mounds of red soil in south-western Uganda. It's a smell that increases each day as investigators uncover more rotting remains of victims of the world's most lethal doomsday cult amid the region's banana plantations.
The catalogue of corpses is already approaching 1,000 - most of them women and children. Almost 400 have been exhumed from four fetid mass graves, while up to 530 people are thought to have been incinerated in the inferno that swept two weeks ago through the tin-roofed church of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The reason that the leaders of the fanatical sect launched their voracious killing spree remains a mystery. But a Telegraph investigation has revealed that the true power behind the cult lay not with its titular head, the self-styled bishop Joseph Kibwetere, but with Credonia Mwerinde, a charismatic and calculating former prostitute with a love of money and a gift for manipulation.
Sister Credonia was known to be one of the triumvirate leading the movement - the third figure was Father Dominic Kataribaabo, a defrocked pastor under whose bedroom and garden 155 bodies were found buried last week. But only now is it possible to piece together the full extent of her domination over the sect - and over Kibwetere and Kataribaabo.
Overwhelmed and out of their depth, Uganda's police have no idea whether the cult's leaders are alive or dead. But while some people claim to have recognised the charred corpses of the two men in the gutted church in Kanungu, there is no sign that Sister Credonia perished in the blaze. Instead, the plump 48-year-old is thought to have made her getaway - possibly across jungle trails into the Congo - with tens of thousands of pounds handed over by her followers.
Fr Paul Ikazire, a priest who spent three years as one of the cult's leaders before defecting back to the Roman Catholic Church, recalls how Sister Credonia dominated the sect. He says: "The meetings were chaired by Sister Credonia, who was the de facto head of the cult. Kibwetere was just a figurehead, intended to impose masculine authority over the followers and enhance the cult's public relations. I perceived her as a trickster, obsessed with the desire to grab other people's property. She told her followers to sell their property but she never sold hers." Sister Credonia was also responsible for imposing a ruthless daily regimen on the devotees. They would be woken before sunrise to perform religious rites and receive instruction on her apocalyptic teachings, then be forced to toil from dawn until dusk in the fields, with only a cup of porridge in the mornings and a plate of beans in the evenings.
A strict code of silence was also enforced: followers were allowed to speak only to recite prayers or sing hymns. This brutal way of life turned her followers - many of them illiterate peasants when they joined - into a cowed, half-starved, sleep-deprived flock which was ripe for brain-washing.
Uganda has a history of extremist Christian cults, so converts would not have thought it strange to be ordered to sell their possessions and hand the cash over to the "Church". Sister Credonia was, however, no believer in practising what she preached: she ate well and gained weight steadily during her years of leading the sect. "The only thing that made Credonia really happy was making money," her sixth and last husband, Eric Mazima, told The Telegraph. "She also used to enjoy spending it - on dresses, eating and drinking. She was a strong and clever woman, but she was never a church-goer. She had even once been a prostitute."
Credonia used to run a business selling illicit banana beer and spirits, but ran into financial difficulties in 1988. A few weeks later, she claimed to have had a vision in a cave of the Virgin Mary who told her that the world must live by the Ten Commandments. When Mr Mazima, who was 22 years her senior, visited the cave and could not see Mary, she told him that she was leaving him.
Mr Mazima believes the only vision that Credonia had was of a new way to make money. Aware of the shortcomings of her own far-from-devout past, she sought out Kibwetere, a respected and wealthy former headmaster and senior civil servant who was well-known in the area for his obsessive interest in visions of the Virgin Mary.
Theresa, Kibwetere's estranged wife, says: "Sister Credonia told us that the Virgin Mary had appeared and told her to go to Mbarara where she would find a man called Kibwetere who would take her to his home, where they would spread her message to the world."
> Credonia and her cousin Ursula moved into the Kibweteres' house in 1989 and by 1990 - when the cult was registered as a religious movement with the authorities - 200 followers, mostly women and children, were already living there. Kibwetere's childhood friend, Fr Kataribaabo, a highly-educated Catholic priest with a masters' degree from a Californian religious academy, also joined the sect after falling out with his bishop.
Both men are described as serene and quietly-spoken; but both were also torn by religious turmoil that made them prey to Credonia's influence. Indeed, Kibwetere was treated for mental illness in 1998. Although there is no doubt that they also oversaw the killing spree - Kataribaabo even bought the sulphuric acid used in the church blaze - they appeared to have believed in their warped visions of Catholicism.
Few who knew Sister Credonia believed that she shared their religious conviction. The cultists left Kibwetere's house in 1993 and settled on a hill at Kanungu. Here, during the next seven years, on land that belonged to Credonia's family, the cult erected an impressive compound of 12 buildings surrounded by farmland.
In the half-constructed new church that now stands abandoned, the altar is built over the graves of Credonia's parents. The few former cult members who have come forward have revealed that the ranting doomsday zealotry served up as God's word was also primarily the work of Sister Credonia. She preached that the world would end in a three-day apocalypse that made the most dire of Old Testament predictions seem tame.
Only the "redeemed", those who had adhered, as instructed by the Virgin Mary, to the cult's interpretation of the Ten Commandments would enter a latter-day Noah's Ark and survive a process that she called the "sift". These true believers, the "new generation", were told that they would inherit the "new earth in year one". A life of luxury awaited - so they had no need to hold on to their possessions now.
Sister Credonia's promise of wealth and happiness after a bloody apocalypse found a ready audience in an impoverished country torn apart first by the murderous regime of Idi Amin and then the Aids epidemic. But the cult leaders hit problems predicting when the world would end. They glossed over the inaccuracy of their first doomsday deadline of 1992, revising the timetable to December 31, 1999.
When the apocalypse again missed its schedule, the cult circulated a note explaining that Christ had deferred the date to December 31 this year. In fact, the sect was rapidly approaching its own self-destructive end. No insiders have yet been found able to tell the story of the weeks of bloodletting that culminated in the Kanungu blaze on March 17.
But on that Friday morning, at least 530 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were boarded inside the church and were then incinerated in a fire set from within the building. The previous night, cult members were treated to an unprecedented celebration: 70 crates of Coca-Cola were ordered and a bull slaughtered. And in the run-up to March 17, the sect had been busily selling off everything from empty jerry cans and old clothes to houses and 200 head of cattle.
It is thought that cult members believed they were finally entering Noah's Ark to survive the three days of the apocalypse and that the boards were to protect them and keep out the unredeemed. Yet that does not explain why they did not react to the smell of the petrol and sulphuric acid that police say was sprinkled around the room. One possibility is that they were given drugged or poisoned communion wine.
Once the inferno began, there was no escape. One detective said: "It was all over very quickly." The blaze, initially treated as mass suicide, turned out to be only the fiery climax of a horrific killing rampage. Suspicions arose when six bodies showing signs of mutilation and poisoning were found three days later in a pit latrine at the compound.
On March 24, police announced that they were treating the Kanungu deaths as murder after the discovery of a mass grave containing 153 bodies at a cult property near Rukungiri, most apparently strangled or hacked to death. Last week another 236 corpses, mostly women and children, were exhumed from Kataribaabo's house and another sect site.
Uganda's only police pathologist, Thaddeus Barungi, estimates that the victims died about a month earlier. Clearly, something terrible occurred within the sect then, but in the absence of witnesses, police are again reduced to supposition.
Their favoured theory is that when the world failed to end on New Year's Eve, sect members who had sold off their property and handed the proceeds to the cult began to dissent, prompting a purge ordered by Sister Credonia. But who did the killing remains another mystery. The cult may have established a special militia unit from within its ranks. Or sect leaders may have told the devout that the dissenters had been sent by Satan and it was their duty to kill them.
The African culture of corruption certainly played into the cult's hands as it bought the approval of officials with gifts of livestock, food and cash. But how was it that neighbours at the grave sites, some of whom lived 20 yards away, saw and heard nothing, as they claim? The explanation could be that south-west Uganda suffered dreadfully during the Amin years and the subsequent civil war and its people have learned not to interfere in the affairs of others. Or it could be that people are terrified that Sister Credonia will punish them by sending evil spirits if they speak out.
What is certain is that none of the cash hoarded by cult leaders in recent weeks has been retrieved from the compound. If Credonia is on the run, she is a wealthy woman after doing what she loved best: making money.

"Exploring the Deadly Mystique Surrounding a Uganda Cult"

by Ian Fisher ("The New York Times", April 2, 2000)

BARARA, Uganda, April 1 -- To the believers, the world was to extinguish at the year 2000, and so last December was a time for forgiveness and, more practically, last-minute recruitment for the world to come.
Members of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments went house to house to visit former cult members, urging them to return before it was too late. Maria Goreth Sekibibi, 54, left home on Dec. 22, without so much as a goodbye to her husband, Claudio, who had argued against her going back, partly because of the cult's slippery promise of painless salvation.
"I was telling her all the time, 'Jesus went to heaven after death,' " he said. " 'His mother, Mary, went to heaven after death. Who are you to go to heaven without dying?' "
Die she most probably did, along with what Ugandan authorities say at last count is some 923 other people, more deaths than in any cult in modern history. With mass graves turning up nearly daily, the authorities fear that many more dead may yet be found, perhaps even hundreds more.
The world was stubborn on Jan. 1, and did not end. And the Ugandan police now speculate that some cult members, who were required to sell their belongings and hand over the profits to the group, rebelled and asked for money back. Paulina Zikanga, a 64-year-old widow and a cult member from the group's inception until 1998, said this was a constant problem: cult leaders would set different dates for the end of the world, but the end never came.
"When I was still there, some people already started saying: 'How is it that the world doesn't end?' " she recalled. "They were insisting that if the world didn't end, they should refund their money."
If the deaths were murder -- which looks increasingly plausible, though no one can yet say for sure -- the police speculate that this unraveling of the cult leaders' New Year's prophecy may have formed a motive, and another doomsday date was set for March. Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, has called the killings "mass murder by these priests for monetary gain."
Certainly the revised date for the end came with ceremony, and finality. The cult had planned a huge celebration for March 15, and one priest from the cult reportedly bought a strange kind of party favor: 50 liters of sulfuric acid, which some investigators say may have helped fuel the fire that exploded in a cult church in Kanungu on March 17, finally alerting the world. At the church, the pathologist counted 330 bodies, though the Ugandan authorities now say 530 died in the blaze. Another party had been planned for a day later.
No cult members appear to have survived, though the police believe that some of the leaders -- including Joseph Kibwetere, 64, a school administrator and middling politician, and Credonia Mwerinde, 48, who claimed direct contact with the Virgin Mary -- may yet be alive, somewhere.
At the moment, the police are working on the theory that cult members may have been poisoned, because most of the bodies show no sign of violence. There was also, apparently, little struggle, which may indicate that some cult members did go willingly to their deaths.
Indeed, several former cult members said in interviews that part of the indoctrination concerned martyrdom, and from its earliest days the cult preached a gospel of doom and dire consequences from an angry God against people who had long forgotten his word.
Abdan Bishoboorokire, 54, who joined the cult in 1990, said members were required to fill out a questionnaire about whether they would die for their faith. He quit in 1994 and returned to Catholicism. But he retained his fervor..
"I would like to be a martyr," he said in his home near Rugazi, where 155 bodies were found around the house of the former parish priest. "Being a martyr would be good."
Whether mass suicide or mass murder, no explanation for so many deaths is entirely satisfactory. And as the details surrounding the deaths grow darker, what becomes clear is that the Ten Commandments cult was different from others that have periodically burst into public view by making apocalyptic prophecies and persuading or coercing followers to lie down and die in a single instant, usually in mere scores.
In Uganda, incredibly, the deaths seem to have involved hundreds of people and to have taken place over weeks or perhaps months -- without any hint to the outside world.
The bodies have been dug out of latrines, from under fresh concrete in a former priest's dressing room, from a packed pit next to a banana field. Piles of whitened bodies -- many belonging to small children -- are not yet rotted enough to erode the distinguishing marks of life. At least one woman was pregnant. Another was lame. One man showed signs of malaria. The barefoot prisoners charged with digging them up gagged and spat.
That these grisly scenes unfolded in Uganda is perhaps no coincidence. This beautiful country, a former British protectorate, has a history of martyrdom: The anniversary of the deaths of 22 Christian converts in 1886, ordered burned by the king of Buganda, the leader of the region's largest tribe, is still observed here.
The more recent past has also been scarred by violence: in the 1970's, the dictator Idi Amin organized rampages that claimed up to 300,000 lives in a country of 22 million. While the 1990's brought economic advances and a leader, President Museveni, who won much Western support, the scourge of AIDS was rampant. Such difficulties, Mr. Museveni said this week, make "people develop fatalism, pessimism."
Religion and violence have long coexisted in Uganda. In the 1980's, a self-described priestess named Alice Lakwena led a rebel group called the Holy Spirit Movement against Mr. Museveni's young government. Her cousin Joseph Kony now leads another rebel group in the north called the Lord's Resistance Army.
There are dozens more religious groups that often mix Christianity with local traditional religion. In September, for example, Ugandan police raided the headquarters of another doomsday cult, the World Message Last Warning church in the central Ugandan town of Luwero, and said they found at least seven girls who had been sexually assaulted, three boys held against their will and 18 unidentified shallow graves.
When the Ten Commandments sect was forming in the late 1980's, said Paul Ikazire, a former Roman Catholic priest who joined the cult, the established church itself was not responding to the problems of its flock.
"We joined the movement as a protest against the Catholic Church," Mr. Ikazire, now 83, told the New Vision, a semi-official daily newspaper here. "We had good intentions. The church was backsliding, the priests were covered in scandals and the AIDS scourge was taking its toll on the faithful. The world seemed poised to end."
The cult seems to have had its earliest roots in Rwanda, and particularly in the town of Kibeho, where from the late 1970's until 1994, children claimed visions of the Virgin Mary on a soccer field. A cult of the Virgin spread to southwest Uganda -- and Ms. Mwerinde, a former store owner and brewer of banana beer, claimed that the Virgin Mary spoke to her for the first time in 1984.
She belonged to a cult of the Virgin, and in 1989, along with two other female members, she met Mr. Kibwetere, who was active in the Roman Catholic Church and local causes. The women claimed that the Virgin directed them to him to spread her message: that people needed to follow the Ten Commandments to escape damnation at the end of the world.
The mesmerizing effect they had on people is evident in interviews with former cult members and people whose families died around Rugazi, about 50 miles to the northeast of the burned church. "They acted like ordinary Christians," said Francis Byaruhanga, a 45-year-old local carpenter. "But they said they were inspired by the Holy Spirit and that they had supernatural powers." Many people joined the cult, including two local former Roman Catholic priests who had been excommunicated, Mr. Ikazire and Dominic Kataribabo.
From the start, this group made demands that the church did not. Members were not allowed to talk, and communicated mostly in sign language. They were required to fast regularly and eat only one meal a day on Fridays and Mondays. Sex was forbidden. So was soap. They had to work hard in fields, growing potatoes, cassava, beans, bananas or sugar cane.
"Oh, terribly, like in prison," Mr. Byaruhanga said. "Building. Digging. Digging everything like we were slaves." The group's ecstatic vision had an unusual effect on some members, driving people to a mental extreme that may help explain the violence of the cult's last weeks.
"I was also possessed by their power myself," Mr. Byaruhanga said.. "It was terrible because they told me it was the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it would even pain my head. The power I got -- as I was possessed -- I started hearing voices from my head just speaking to me."
But the requirement that rankled most was that members sell off their property and give the proceeds to the church. Several people here said they quit because their children forbade selling the family property.
The structure of the cult's leadership was not completely clear, members said. While Mr. Kibwetere was nominally in charge, he appeared to many to be a weak, if charismatic, man who reportedly suffered from manic depression. The real power, most everyone said, was Ms. Mwerinde. She translated hervisions from the Virgin into the rules -- the "program" as cult members referred to them. Much of the program was published in a red book called, "A Timely Message From Heaven: The End of the Present Times," published first in 1991.
She was also described as pretty, difficult and wrathful. "Kibwetere was a quiet man," Mr. Sekibibi said. "But Credonia was too rough in handling members. She would say if you were breaking one of the rules they gave you that the Virgin Mary and Jesus would curse you."
None of the leaders appeared to live much differently from ordinary members.. Mr. Ikazire left the cult in 1994 -- taking with him about 70 members around Rugazi -- but did not mention as a reason any disparity between the leaders and followers.
Over the years, the cult accumulated houses for recruitment, indoctrination and worship around southwest Uganda. In a 1997 filing with the government, its membership was listed at nearly 5,000 people.
The year 2000 seemed to provide the final, compelling date for the cult's predictions of the end of the world. In August, Dementira Shashano, 61, a longstanding cult member, went to the nearby town of Kabale to collect her oldest daughter and her daughter's seven children, said her husband, Yacob Tibanyendera.
In December, they gave away their clothes and, dressed in the black-and-green uniforms of the cult, left for the church in Kanungu, along with two other daughters and nine more grandchildren.
Mr. Tibanyendera opposed her going -- they had argued for years about her belonging to the cult -- but he said he himself was mildly curious if the world was, in fact, going to end. "I was also waiting to see what was going to happen," he said. "My mind was open."
As New Year's approached, members at cult sites around the area sold their clothes cheaply and even gave away expensively bred cows, neighbors in several towns said. They stopped working the fields. Former members were re-recruited for the final moment. But it never came.
Then on March 12, one of the former priests, Mr. Kataribabo, dressed in black with a rosary in his hand, went to the town of Kasese to see an electrician named John Musoke. "He said he had a problem," Mr. Musoke said. "He said he wanted acid." For about $170 Mr. Musoke sold Mr. Kataribabo the sulfuric acid, usually used to charge car batteries.
On March 15, the members held a huge party in Kanungu, reportedly roasting three bulls and drinking 70 crates of soft drinks. As if to show that nothing was amiss, local officials were invited to a function there on March 18, a day after the huge fire.
As many as 530 people died. At the home of Mr. Kataribabo in Rugazi, 155 bodies were pulled out of his back yard and in a pit dug into his house. At two other sites, investigators found 234 more bodies, and they say there may be many more in the ground.
Mr. Tibanyendera lost his wife, 3 daughters and 16 grandchildren. He remembered what they told him as they left for Kanungu. "They said they were never coming back," he said.

"Pope To Probe Cult Deaths"

(New Vision [Kampala], April 2, 2000)

Kampala - The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II has developed keen interest in the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult led by Yozefu Kibweteere.
The Apostolic Nuncio in Uganda, Archbishop Christophe Pierre confirmed the Pontiff's concern over the Kibweteere tragedy, which has left at least 1000 followers dead. Hundreds of people including children were locked up in a Church building on March 17 and incinerated.
Other decomposing bodies are still being exhumed from several other mass graves found in the homes of cult leaders in southwestern Uganda.
"It is true the Holy Father is aware. He is very concerned about the unfortunate event. I have informed him," the prelate who represents the Pope in Uganda told Sunday Vision.
Archbishop Pierre also dismissed claims by Kibweteere that he had met Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to Uganda in February 1993.
"Certainly he (Kibweteere) did not meet the Holy Father. People don't meet the Pope just like that.
Mr. Kibweteere should produce evidence to prove that he met the Pope. We don't have any proof that he met the Pope," Pierre emphasised.
There are 1,040,354,000 Catholics world-wide. The 1991 Population Census in Uganda put the number of Catholic at 7,426,500 making them 44.5% of the population.
Uganda's population is estimated at 20.4 million. Kibweteere claims he met the Pope on February 2, 1993.

"Uganda calls for help in catching cult leaders"

by Adrian Blomfield (Reuters, April 2, 2000)

KANUNGU, April 2 (Reuters) - Ugandans mourned on Sunday for more than 900 people police say were murdered by leaders of a Christian Doomsday sect and heard a senior government official call for international help in tracking them down.
Speaking after laying a wreath at a mass grave where the charred bodies of over 500 people were interred two weeks ago after their church was torched, Vice-President Speciosa Kazibwe said she believed the cult leaders were on the run.
``I believe they (the cult leaders) are still alive. The whole world has to help us catch them,'' Kazibwe said.
``They had started to spread to Tanzania and Kenya and we have started investigations to see if they have connections with Europe. This was murder, I am satisfied with that,'' she added.
Kazibwe said she estimated that over 1,000 people had been killed by the cult leaders, many of them women and children, adding that investigators were likely to find more mass graves.
In her speech at the memorial service, Kazibwe apologised to people who lost their relatives and said similar religious sects would be investigated to ensure that what happened at Kanungu would not recur.
``Government regrets the loss of such large numbers of our people through the seduction, intrigue and manipulation of some unscrupulous hardened criminals, the likes of (cult leader Joseph) Kwibetere and his accomplices,'' Kazibwe said. ``I would like therefore to tender the apologies of government in this.''
The heavily populated Kigezi district, where the sect had its headquarters at Kanungu, is one of Uganda's poorest.
Analysts say its poverty, the impact of AIDS and regional instability -- it borders Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- provided fertile ground for the sect's message that the world was about to end.
Kazibwe said she found it hard to console the bereaved.
``What other consolation can we give to people when children, unsuspecting women and men were murdered?'' she asked.
Hundreds of local residents, many of them relatives of the victims, attended Sunday's inter-denominational service in the village. It was here that the saga began two weeks ago when the 500 bodies were found in the charred remains of the church.
Police initially described the incident as mass suicide, but after the discovery of three mass graves containing nearly 400 more bodies -- with evidence that they were strangled, poisoned or hacked to death -- they are treating the case as murder.
Catholic, Protestant and Moslem leaders were joined on Sunday in Kanungu by government officials, including Kazibwe, to lay flowers at the church, followed by a service of prayer.
Meanwhile police said they were compiling a comprehensive list of the victims whose bodies had been discovered at various sites, all linked to the sect.
Digging for further suspected mass graves was suspended at the weekend to allow the ill-equipped police investigation team -- Uganda's police force has only one pathologist -- to beef up its resources with possible help from abroad.
Kazibwe said military personnel would be seconded to the team, which has been hard-pressed to handle what is turning out to be the country's biggest murder probe in history.
Kibwetere's former wife Theresa has said he had been a good husband and a deeply religious man until falling under the influence of former prostitute Gredonia Mwerinda, who claimed to speak to the Virgin Mary and her sister.
However other former associates have described Kibwetere as a violent man prone to seizures who was briefly detained in a mental institution in 1988 for manic depression.
Speaking at the family farm on Saturday Theresa said she had left the cult, along with her children, because she disagreed with its bizarre practices including a ban on speech, medical care and soap.

"Ex-prostitute may have ordered Uganda cult deaths"

by Adrian Blomfield (Reuters, April 2, 2000)

KANUNGU, Uganda, April 2 (Reuters) - A former prostitute who may have masterminded the killing of over 900 members of a Ugandan doomsday cult became a religious fanatic after she claimed to have met the Virgin Mary, her husband said on Sunday.
Along with Joseph Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet and failed politician, Gredonia Mwerinda led the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. Up to 530 cult members died when its Kanungu headquarters burned down on March 17.
Since the fire, initially thought to be a ritual mass suicide but now being treated as murder, the bodies of 395 other cult members have been pulled out of mass graves in nearby areas of southwest Uganda.
Most of the victims were women and children who appeared to have been strangled.
Police have named Gredonia as one of their principal suspects. Along with Kibwetere, she had predicted that the world would end on December 31, 1999.
Former cult members described her as a forceful and sometimes violent woman who ruled the cult with an iron fist. They said she claimed to have regular conversations with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael.
But her husband, Eric Mazima, said she was a dutiful and loving wife with little interest in religion until she claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary in August 1988.
``In the whole time I was with her she never went to church once,'' he said. ``But because I could not see the same vision she left me.'' He said he had not seen Gredonia since they separated in 1988.
Mazima said Gredonia, whom he said was a prostitute even while they were married, claimed to have seen the vision in a cave near their home.
``It was rubbish. There was no image of Mary. I looked for ages and saw nothing,'' he said.
Kibwetere founded the cult in 1989 after he claimed to have captured on tape a conversation between the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were complaining how sinful the world had become.
Gredonia joined him, part of a large, mainly female, following. Villagers said she quickly became Kibwetere's confidante and possibly even his lover.
Preaching the evil of material possessions to her followers, she quickly grew rich from them. She accumulated large farms, houses and cars and spent a lot of time flying around Africa to try to win converts, according to her uncle, Marsiali Baryeihahwenki.
Paul Ikazire, a former cult member, said she seemed to have a firm grip on the reins of power -- even beating up Kibwetere's wife on one occasion for using soap, which was banned by the cult, along with conversation, sex, cigarettes and alcohol.
``She used to bring in messages from the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael,'' Ikazire, who left the cult in 1994, said. ``She would come in and say things like: 'The Virgin Mary wants you to bring more money,''' he said.

"Uganda mourns its dead"

(BBC, April 2, 2000)

As mourners gathered in Uganda for a special church service in memory of victims of a doomsday religious cult, a senior government minister said she expected the final death toll to exceed 1,000. Uganda's Vice-President, Specioza Kazibwe, was speaking after laying a floral wreath on the site of a church in the small town of Kanungu, where several hundred cult followers burned to death two weeks ago.
She said that what had happened was murder, and she appealed for international help with the investigation. "These criminals outwitted the security network, exploiting the ignorance and illiteracy of thousands, many of whom have been ruthlessly murdered," she said.
So far, more than 900 bodies have been found at four different sites, many of them in mass graves. Some had been strangled; others are thought to have been poisoned.
The vice president said she believed more bodies would be found, taking the final death toll to over 1,000.
Expression of grief Church leaders and government representatives joined local people at the interdenominational service in Kanungu.
It was the first opportunity for Ugandans collectively to express their sorrow for what happened to followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
Addressing the open-air service, the Reverend Canon Grace Kaiso of the Ugandan Joint Christian Council, said the churches had to do much more in the future. "As we stand at this disgraced place of Kanungu, we are forced to face our own failure in duty towards our neighbour," he said.
The fire at the church, in which at least 330 people died, was initially thought to have been a mass suicide, but is now being treated as murder.
More than 400 bodies, mainly women and children, have since been discovered in mass graves in the south-west of the country, and there are two suspect sites still to be investigated.
An international search is under way for four cult leaders believed to be on the run.
Nation in shock The BBC's Cathy Jenkins, who is in Kanunga, says the scale of the tragedy has left the country in shock.
She says the mainstream Churches are having to ask themselves why they failed to reach out to so many ordinary people, while the authorities are under scrutiny for not having done more to prevent the deaths.
Uganda's Sunday Vision newspaper reports that Pope John Paul II has developed a close interest in the cult.
The Apostolic Nuncio in Uganda, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, told the paper: "It is true the holy father is aware. He is very concerned about the unfortunate event."
At the same time, Archbishop Pierre dismissed claims by cult leader Yozefu Kibweteere that he had met the Pope during his visit to Uganda in 1993.
'Meeting Jesus' Meanwhile, police have begun investigating a house in the village of Sweswe, which they believe was used as a meeting place by cult members.
Prisoners have been working without protective clothing The isolated house, several hundred kilometres north of Kanungu, belonged to John Katebalirwe, who police say was a prominent member of the cult. One local resident quoted by Agence France Presse news agency said she had asked Mr Katebalirwe why he was leaving the house.
He had replied: "We are going to pray in Kanungu because our leader [Joseph Kibweteere] received a message from God that on 20 March, we will meet Jesus and Mary." Investigators are not expected to dig up the grounds immediately, as police are awaiting the arrival of more equipment and personnel.

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

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