Uganda Cult Deaths Remain a Mystery

The Associated Press/March 16, 2002
By Henry Wasswa

Kampala, Uganda -- Two years ago, hundreds of followers of a doomsday cult were burned alive inside a locked church in Uganda. Hundreds more were found buried under the homes of cult leaders.

The mystery of their deaths - a tragedy on the scale of the 1978 Jonestown suicide and massacre in Guyana - remains unsolved. The government's failure to clear up the circumstances of their deaths and track down the cult leaders has angered many in the East African nation.

"The problem is still fresh in our minds, particularly those of the survivors and those who lost dear ones,'' said Timothy Osuban, a law student in Kampala. "The most annoying thing is that the government has divorced itself from its responsibility to find out the truth.''

On March 17, 2000, more than 500 people perished in a fire after they were locked inside a makeshift church in the southwestern village of Kanungu, the headquarters of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

In the days following the fire, police unearthed bodies of hundreds more cult followers from beneath houses owned by cult leaders.

Police, who had originally put the number of dead in the Kanungu fire at 530, later revised it downward to 330. More than 800 died in all, they say, but there is no accurate count. Other researchers say as many as 1,000 perished in the fire alone.

By any account, however, the scale of the Ugandan deaths rivaled the Jonestown suicide and massacre, which killed 913 Peoples Temple members.

The Ugandan cult was founded in the early 1990s by renegade Roman Catholics led by Joseph Kibwetere, defrocked priest Dominic Kataribaabo and a businesswoman named Cledonia Mwerinde. The trio told their followers to sell all their belongings and wait for the end of the world, which they first predicted would come on Dec. 31, 1999, then sometime in 2000.

Police issued arrest warrants for the three cult leaders and three others suspected of involvement in the deaths. But all remain at large, and a commission of inquiry set up to investigate the cult and the deaths has yet to open because officials say there is no money to pay commission members.

Government spokesman and information minister Basogo Nsadhu last week denied accusations that the government of President Yoweri Museveni was ignoring the probe and insisted that funds were being sought to begin the investigation.

"The matter of funds is being handled by Parliament, and I can assure you that everything will be in the open when the commission does its work,'' Nsadhu said. "So there is no case of government not being interested.''

Researchers from the Department of Religious Studies at Kampala's Makerere University warn that failure to get at the root cause of the cult and to draw up legislation against extremist religious groups will result in more cults and deaths.

"Nobody believes that government has no money for the inquiry,'' said researcher Chris Tuhuirwe, who is working on a doctorate on the cult phenomenon in the East African nation.

In "The Kanungu Cult Saga: Suicide, Murder or Salvation?'' Tuhuirwe and several colleagues list the names of 597 people who died in the Kanungu fire. They say that more than 1,000 may have perished in the blaze.

Police spokesman Asuman Mugenyi acknowledged that officials do not have a precise death toll "because we did not go deep to check the exact numbers. Some suspected mass graves were left out. But the number was no less than 800.''

Tuhuirwe's book details the life of hard labor, silence and isolation the cult members led while their leaders lived in relative luxury.

"It is unbelievable that the deaths of so many people are left uninvestigated,'' Tuhuirwe said. "Failure to investigate this problem could result in the emergence of more cults.''

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