80 More Bodies Unearthed on Ugandan Cult Leader's Land

New York Times, March 28, 2000
By Henri E. Cauvin

KAMPALA, Uganda, March 27 -- Eighty more bodies were exhumed today from a mass grave discovered during the weekend on a rural plot of land once owned by a leader of a doomsday cult, which now appears to be linked to the deaths of at least 500 people.

Investigators believe the people found today, like the 159 unearthed last week from other mass graves, had been murdered, said a police spokesman, Eric Naigambi. "There is no other reason why 80 people would end up in a mass grave," Mr. Naigambi said late tonight.

The unearthing of corpses today, in the village of Rugazi, was the third such discovery since March 17, when at least 330 followers of the cult, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, died in a fire set by some of its own members in a chapel on the cult's isolated compound in Kanungu, about 200 miles southwest of here. The cult believed the end of the world was to come on Dec. 31, 1999.

Rugazi is the latest site to be searched by the police as they try to piece together what happened on March 17 and determine who was responsible. So far their searches have only added more questions to an already complicated case.

A few days after the fire, investigators pulled six bodies from a latrine on the cult's compound in Kanungu, just steps away from the charred wreckage of the chapel. The six people, who could not be identified, had been slain. Then on Friday, in Rutoma, a village about 30 miles from Kanungu, the police unearthed the bodies of 153 people buried in mass graves on a plot of land used by the cult. The people had been slashed to death or strangled during the past several weeks, the police said.

Investigators arrived in Rugazi, which is also about 30 miles from Kanungu, during the weekend, and on Sunday discovered the remains of a human being buried in a grave, the police said. Digging was halted immediately, and a team of senior investigators was summoned from here in the capital.

Led by the police department's head of criminal investigation, the team, which includes a government chemist and a government pathologist, was expected to arrive in the village late today, a police spokesman said. But the search of the site was not supposed to have resumed until this Wednesday, when the experts had arrived from the capital, Mr. Naigambi said. Inexplicably, the local officials resumed the search this afternoon and soon discovered that the lone body found on Sunday was far from the only one. A local doctor examining the bodies said at the scene that the victims appear to have been dead about a month, according to the Associated Press, which reported that some of the bodies appeared to have stab wounds while others had pieces of cloth tied around their necks.

Why the digging began before the team from the capital arrived and why the bodies were re-buried before being examined by that team are just the latest questions in what has been a troubled investigation.

Apparently overwhelmed by the number of bodies, the authorities here have conducted only cursory autopsies before reburying the dead in mass graves, leaving many important questions unanswered.

The order to halt digging and wait for the experts to arrive was supposed to have been a step toward straightening out the investigation. "We don't know what happened," Mr. Naigambi, the police spokesman, said when asked why the search had proceeded today.

The property was owned until recently by Dominic Kataribaabo, a disgraced former priest who was one of the cult's leaders and who is believed to have perished in the fire at Kanungu, another police spokesman, Assuman Mugenyi, said. The house was apparently used by the cult for meetings until about a month ago, when Mr. Kataribaabo sold it to his brother, Mr. Mugenyi said. The timing of the sale, only weeks before the deadly inferno at Kanungu, is another piece of circumstantial evidence suggesting that many of the cult's followers knew something momentous was about to happen. Only hours before the fire in Kanungu, cult members set fire to all five buildings in the compound in Rutoma before leaving for Kanungu, the police said.

The cult's two most prominent leaders, Joseph Kibwetere and Credonia Mwerinde, are among the prime suspects in the killings, the police said. No one knows whether either of them is alive, but the police here are operating on the assumption, for now, that they are alive and are on the run.

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