A party, prayers, then mass suicide

Up to 470 dead as worshippers lock themselves in blazing church

The Observer (UK), March 20, 2000
Anna Borzello

A mass of tangled bodies lay sprawled on the floor of the makeshift church. The corrugated tin roof had fallen in from the pressure of the flames, and rain spattered down on the corpses, some of which were still smouldering. Several looked as if they had died in terror. Their blackened bodies were curled towards the wall, as if shielding themselves from the flames. One man lay on his back, his legs spreadeagled and his arms thrown above his head. The body of a baby - its arm partly missing - lay just outside the main door to the church.

Police estimate that more than 235 men, women and children died in an apparent mass suicide on Friday morning at the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God church in Kanungu trading centre, in the western Ugandan district of Rukungiri. There were unconfirmed reports last night that the death toll may be as high as 470.

The followers locked themselves into their church, doused themselves in petrol and then reportedly set themselves ablaze. "All indications are that we have a mass suicide. We know that the leaders of that sect must have planned it. But we can only really make our final analysis when the pathologists make their report," said Uganda's inspector general of police, John Kisembo.

The Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult has been operating in western Uganda since the late 1980s and had a following drawn mainly from the south and central regions, as well as from across the border in neighbouring Rwanda.

Police have a copy of the cult's membership list, but do not yet know whether they were all in the church when it was set alight. What is known, however, is that the cult was a live-in community - and that no one who was in the area at the time of the blaze survived. Gruesome task

A steady stream of relatives and friends made their way along the muddy path to the cult headquarters yesterday to begin the gruesome task of identifying their dead.

Two women, their heads draped in shawls, wailed as they looked at the charred remains. Another woman, who had lost 10 family members in the fire, wandered around with a fixed smile on her face as if she could not absorb what was happening.

"The scene is horror," a police spokesman, Asuman Mugenyi, said. "It is only about two or three bodies which you can say that these are men or women. The rest of the bodies are beyond human shape."

"I've come here because we had our relatives here. I had an elder brother and his children who were members of this cult. All five have died here. I had no idea that this would happen," said Isaac Mugenyi, a dazed young man from western Uganda, as he walked around the site.

The exact circumstances surrounding the death of the followers is still not known. However, police and people living in the area tend to believe the followers chose to kill themselves.

"I was at Kanungu police station when someone came to tell us that these people had locked themselves into a church and set themselves on fire. We went there running, but we found heavy fire and we could do nothing - although we tried our level best," said Stephen Mujenyi, a security officer from the nearby trading centre.

The cult members appeared to have nailed down the doors and windows from the outside. Then they went inside and set themselves alight.

The windows of the church still have large tin nails hammered into the charred wood frame. A large drum which police believe contained fuel, sits at one end of the church, along with the remains of several jerry cans. There had been signs in the week before the deaths that something unusual was going on. The followers had reportedly started selling off their possessions - in readiness for entering heaven.

On March 14, they also held a big party, for which they bought crate-loads of Coca-Cola. The long palm fronds, put up for decoration, are now withered and standing outside the new church.

Local people had heard members of the cult talk in biblical terms about their community. "All along they had said that this [church] is the boat of Noah," said Florence, a local villager. "This is the ark and they were told that at the time of calamity they would come here. "They were told that at a certain time this year the world would end and so the leaders made it happen and perhaps the people there believed it had happened," she said.

Police still do not know whether the cult leader, Joseph Kibwetere, and his principal aides - two former Roman Catholic priests - were among those who died in the fire. "We are still checking our leads. But we believe that he could have also died along with his followers," Mr Kisembo said. Among Uganda's plethora of religious cults, the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God had been considered fairly innocuous. The group was established in the late 1980s by Mr Kibwetere and registered as a charity with the aim of carrying out observance of the ten commandments and preaching the word of Jesus.

The cult still shows its Roman Catholic links; the leaders modest office has three small statues of Jesus. A crucifix also lay on a chair, covered with a stretch of green cloth.

By the late 1990s, the church had grown into a thriving community. The cult members lived communally on land bought by pooling the profits from their property - which they sold when they joined the cult. The church buildings were set in plantations of pineapples and bananas. Cows grazed on the hilly land. The followers had their own primary school, as well as dormitories where they slept together on simple rush mats. They had recently completed a new church and decorated it with coloured bunting. Local people described the cult followers as disciplined and polite and said they never gave any trouble. Their only oddity was their habit - on certain days - to converse entirely in hand signals.

"It was properly registered and they were behaving absolutely normally. They were even about to hold a reception for the new resident district commissioner. They did everything in the most sensible way," the internal affairs minister, Professor Edward Rugamayo, said.

There were perhaps some hints that everything was not as normal as it seemed. In 1998, the cult was closed down for its insanitary conditions and using children as labourers, but then allowed to reopen. The state-owned New Vision newspaper last year ran an interview with a 19-year-old cult member.

"The world ends next year. There is no time to waste. Some of our leaders talk directly to god. Any minute from now, when the end comes, every believer who will be at an as yet undisclosed spot will be saved," he said. The death toll of devotion

November 1978

In the largest cult-inspired mass suicide of recent times, 914 followers of the reverend Jim Jones's People's Temple died at Jonestown, Guyana. Most drank a grape punch that was laced with cyanide. Those who refused to drink it were shot.

A sign over Jones's altar read: "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it".

The paranoid pastor and his followers had moved to Guyana from the US amid allegations of abuse of power and funds.

April 1993

A 51-day siege of a compound run by the Branch Davidian cult, led by David Koresh, at Waco, Texas, ended with the deaths of 70 cult members. A fire consumed the compound, which was surrounded by police and federal agents. Koresh, who believed he was Jesus Christ, died of a shot to the head.

The end of the siege was re-enacted yesterday to see if gunshots from the military caused the blaze - a theory denied by the US government.

October 1993

Fifty-three hill tribe villagers in a remote Vietnamese hamlet committed suicide using flintlocks and other primitive weapons after they were tricked out of money by a blind local leader who had promised to get them to heaven. Nineteen children were among the villagers who died in the hamlet of Ta He, about 200 miles north-west of Hanoi.

The mass suicide was inspired by a man named Ca Van Liem who had proclaimed himself king.

October 1994

The charred bodies of 48 members of the Solar Temple cult were found in a farmhouse and three chalets in Switzerland. At the same time five bodies, including one of a child, were discovered in a chalet near Montreal, in Canada.

The cult, founded in 1980 by Luc Jouret, believes that sacrificial suicide leads to rebirth on a planet called Sirius.

March 1997

Thirty-nine members of the Higher Source cult committed suicide at a mansion in Santa Fe, California.

Police found the bodies of 21 women and 18 men lying face up with their arms by their sides. They were all dressed in black trousers and black tennis shoes and had purple triangular shrouds covering their faces and chests. The group are believed to have killed themselves by swallowing phenobarbital dissolved in apple sauce and vodka. The sect's leader, Marshall Applewhite, also died. The deaths were believed to have coincided with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, which the cult members believed contained a space ship that would deliver them to a "higher evolutionary level" after they had shed their bodies.

December 1991

A minister and 29 worshippers suffocated after toxic fumes filled a church in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The minister, Ramon Morales Almazan, urged people to stay calm and keep praying as they began to choke on the fumes and vomit or faint. The minister is reported to have told his dying congregation that God was drawing near and that he could feel the presence of the Lord.

March 1995

The Aum Shinri Kyo (Way of Divine Truth) cult killed 12 people and injured over 3,700 after releasing sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway.

The cult, estimated at one time to have 30,000 members in Japan, believed it would help lead Japan into a military empire that would last 1,000 years. Its members venerated Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and renewal, but also took inspiration from Buddhism.

December 1995

Solar Temple members were found dead in a burned house outside Grenoble, in the French Alps.

Sixteen corpses were discovered lying in a circle. The victims were killed by two cult members, who were policemen, after first being lured to an outdoor mass.

March 1997

The burned bodies of five Solar Temple members were found in a house in Quebec, Canada.

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