Uganda, Jonestown Killings Similar

The Associated Press, March 31, 2000
By Chris Tomlinson

Led by persuasive clergy offering a better life with spiritual meaning, Africans who joined the cult in Uganda and Americans who followed Jim Jones to Guyana lived similar lives and met the same fate.

Both cults were offshoots of Christianity and both were located in remote regions of poor, tropical countries. Both were also virtually unknown until their leaders - apparently fearing the dissolution of the congregations that worshipped them - launched their own versions of the apocalypse.

The beginning of the end for Jones' followers came when Rep. Leo Ryan, a California Democrat, traveled to the colony in South America to investigate reports that the Peoples Temple was abusing its members and holding some against their will.

When Ryan's delegation prepared to leave Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978, cult members killed him and four other Americans. Within a few hours, Jim Jones was serving his followers cyanide-laced punch, a ritual the 1,000-member group had rehearsed many times in preparation for the end of the world. At least 913 people died, including some who were shot.

In Uganda, the first sign of trouble within the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God came when the chapel at their main compound erupted into flames with an estimated 530 people trapped inside by doors and windows that had been nailed shut.

One of the group's leaders, Credonia Mwerinde, reportedly had said the Virgin Mary was unhappy and that the world would end on Dec. 31. Investigators hypothesize that some of the 1,000 mostly Ugandan cult members - of whom 924 would be found dead - grew restless when the prophecy proved false and demanded the return of the possessions they had given sect leaders.

The church fire turned out to be only the end of the killing. Ugandan police have since found 394 bodies at cult compounds. While it is clear there was foul play involved, the exact causes of death have not been determined.

Both cults made unusual demands on members and sought complete obedience and loyalty. Followers were told to give all their belongings to the cults and families were split apart with nonbelievers considered to be evil.

Children lived separately from their parents and went to special schools. Self-sufficiency and a break with the outside world also characterized both cults, which promised a Utopian lifestyle, but provided totalitarian rule in an agrarian setting.

The cults also had their own idiosyncratic practices. In Uganda, members were not allowed to speak and used an elaborate sign language to communicate. Jones required his followers to write self-critical letters to him. They were addressed "Dear Dad."

One key difference, though, is that while Jones was found among the dead, investigators suspect the Ugandan cult leaders may still be on the loose.

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