KANUNGU, March 21, 2000 (Reuters) - The hundreds of followers of the Ugandan Doomsday cult who died en masse in a church blaze on Friday were forbidden by their leaders to have sex and were forced into hard labour without payment.
Relatives and former cult members said men and women, including married couples, slept in separate dormitories and no children were ever born to members of the 13-year-old cult.
"Nobody ever produced a child," said Marsiali Baryeihahwenki, the uncle of one of the cult's leaders. "One time there was a woman who became pregnant and she was beaten until she miscarried. In the end she left the religion."
Up to 400 members of the "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God" perished in a petrol-fuelled blaze in their boarded up church in the small town of Kanungu in southwest Uganda on Friday morning.
The discovery on Monday of more bodies dumped in a pit latrine shed a more sinister light on what initially looked to be a mass ritual suicide.
Ugandan police say they have launched a murder inquiry as they suspect that many of the adults and certainly the dozens of children who died were lured unsuspectingly to their fate.
Baryeihahwenki said families were separated when they joined the cult and members were moved around frequently between several different sites in the impoverished farming region of southwestern Uganda to stop them forming attachments.
"They would come with a pick-up and tell people to get in with no warning," he said. "They were moved around all the time."
Members were told that the world would end at the beginning of the new Millennium. They would be delivered to heaven if they gave up all their earthly goods and followed the doctrine of the cult which allowed them to communicate only in gestures.
Baryeihahwenki's niece Gredonia Mwerinda, a former barmaid and prostitute, teamed up with Kibwetere the same year after she too said she received a calling from the Virgin Mary.
Mwerinda grew rich at the expense of her followers, owning a huge farm, several shops and vehicles, and she travelled frequently around Africa to evangelise and recruit new members, Baryeihahwenki said.
But she seems to have met the same fate as her followers. Police said this week they had identified her body among the charred corpses, and suspected Kibwetere died as well.
Leaders wore white robes, while members who had given generously on recruitment wore green.
The remainder were allowed to dress only in black and were put to work in the fields or workshop without payment. Disobedience was punished with canings or food deprivation.
"They made me work until I was exhausted. We were treated like serfs," said Emmanuel Bisgye who abandoned the sect three years ago but lost 25 relatives in the blaze. "If we sold any food or any crafts we were not allowed to keep the money."
The children that new recruits brought to the cult were also put to work, fetching water and firewood, he said.
A primary school run by cult leaders was closed down in 1998 by local authorities who said in a report that children were malnourished and made to sleep on the floor without mattresses or blankets.
Bisgye, who simply walked away from the field where he was working one day, said he was one of very few who left the cult.
"We all of us believed in the Blessed Mary. We thought that she would make miracles for us and save us," he said.