RUSHOJWA, Uganda, March 31, 2000 (Reuters) - As police expose the rising scale of mass cult murders, Uganda is struggling to understand how such monstrous crimes went unnoticed for so long.
Almost every day in southwestern Uganda a new mass grave is found. More than 900 members of the cult Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments have been slain.
Another 4,000 are unaccounted for.
Investigators, overwhelmed by the biggest cult mass murders of recent history, are hard pressed just to complete the grim task of recovering the bodies.
How and why this could happen remains a mystery. What was the motive? How could so many murders have been carried out without raising local suspicions?
"We find it hard to understand," said Thaddeus Barungi, the only police pathologist in Uganda, as he watched another body being pulled from a grave. "Actually we find it impossible to understand how something like this could have happened."
Initially treated as mass suicide, police are now positive it was mass murder, with followers lured into the church for a prayer meeting then locked inside as the building burned.
One cult leader "Father" Dominic Kataribabo, at whose house 155 corpses would later be discovered, was seen buying 40 litres of stolen concentrated sulphuric acid days before the fire.
Police say four canisters of acid were placed at each corner of the building and mixed with water to create a violent reaction that would precipitate the blaze. Petrol was also sprinkled about the room.
"The intense heat, exemplified by the way the heads exploded and brains liquefied, suggest that it was all over very quickly," one senior investigator told reporters. "Most of them would not have had time to find out what was going on."
Since last Friday 389 bodies have been pulled out of five mass graves at three of the cult's branches in the country's southwest. Preliminary forensic reports show many were probably strangled. Most of the victims were women and children.
Police have identified overall leader Joseph Kibwetere, who started the cult in 1987, Gredonia Mwerinda, a former barmaid and prostitute and Kataribabo, an excommunicated priest, as among their main suspects. They are believed to be on the run.
Kibwetere and Mwerinda, who said they regularly communicated with Jesus and the Virgin Mary, had told followers the world would end on December 31, 1999. When it did not, they may have started killing members who questioned their beliefs and their authority.
There could also have been a financial motive. When people joined the cult they were told to give their possessions to cult leaders, and when Doomsday did not arrive, some apparently began demanding them back.
But how so many people could have been killed, either in a series of massacres or by smaller-scale systematic executions, is even more difficult to comprehend.
Neighbours at the sites where mass graves have been discovered say they saw nothing. Visitors were discouraged from coming to cult branches and victims were mainly buried in secluded gardens or beneath rooms in buildings.
Local authorities suspected something strange was going on, but their reports were either suppressed or ignored.
One official, who police say may have been linked to the cult, has been arrested for allegedly burying a report about the sect. Other officials may have been brushed off with the assurance the cult was a registered non-governmental organisation, apparently approved by central government.
Cult members themselves could have been duped too. They rarely lived in one place but were moved from branch to branch.
Forbidden to speak, they could not question their leaders and many probably never knew the full horror of what was happening. Fed only one meal a day and deprived of sleep, their will to resist would probably have worn desperately thin.