Yet Another Mass Grave Is Uncovered in Uganda

New York Times, March 31, 2000
By Ian Fisher

RUSHOJWA, Uganda, March 30 -- The carnage in Uganda deepened again today as investigators unearthed 81 more bodies at the home here of a member of a doomsday cult. Of the dead, packed tight in a mass grave dug deeply into red soil, 44 were children.

Today was the fourth day in a row that the police here pulled rotting corpses from the ground, as the death toll since March 17 rose to at least 725, with at least 229 of them being children. The discoveries now follow a depressing pattern: The bodies, here as elsewhere, were naked and had been dead for about a month. Some showed signs of strangulation but many showed no marks at all.

Perhaps most perplexing for investigators was that neighbors here -- who live within a few feet of the small hilltop compound owned by one of the cult elders -- said they saw or heard nothing that would make them suspect people were being killed. Night Nalongo, 22, who is married to the nephew of the house's owner, said she often tried to peek inside because she was suspicious of the comings and goings of the people who came to stay there. But she said she saw nothing, heard no screams and, until today, when the police dug up the bodies, did not smell rotting flesh. The house had been empty since the last of the members left on March 15 -- two days before more than 300 cult members, who believed the world was ending, died in a fire at a church in Kanungu, some 20 miles to the southwest of here.

"They said they were going to a place where they would be taken to heaven," Ms. Nalongo, who did not belong to the cult, said today.

Investigators -- overwhelmed and undertrained for the massive task before them -- originally said they believed the church deaths were a mass suicide. But since then, they have uncovered bodies at three more sites, many of them with cords or banana leaves tied around their necks.

They are now treating the deaths as murder cases, and say it is possible the leaders of the cult, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, are still alive. But they have yet to speculate publicly on how so many people could have been killed and buried -- with no one apparently knowing about it.

In an interview late on Wednesday, the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, said the group had been investigated several times by local officials, who he said "sat on" the reports. "Some intelligence officers filed reports saying that this is a dangerous group but at one level it was not forwarded, it was just ignored," Mr. Museveni told the BBC in London. He said that he had ordered an investigation to determine why the reports were not taken more seriously.

On Wednesday, the police detained one local official accused of suppressing those reports, the Rev. Amooti Mutazindwa, an assistant district commissioner in southwest Uganda suspected of having strong links to the cult. He was not apparently charged with any crime, though officials said they hoped he could provide information on the cult's activities and the whereabouts of any of its living leaders.

A local official here, Kapere Lauben, said he had initiated an investigation of the group, in response to people's concerns about the number of children in the house here without parents and about the frequent comings and goings of cult members to the house. Most of them, he said, were women and children. "Their moves were so frequent," Mr. Lauben, the chairman of the area, said. "You would find them there today. Tomorrow you would find an empty household."

He said he first visited the house last April, asking to speak with the owners and to see their credentials. He said the cult was investigated at two higher governmental levels, called the parish and the sub-county, though he said no action was taken as far as he knew. "I didn't see anything," he said.

The house here, on a hill surrounded by banana trees and fields for growing vegetables, was owned by Joseph Nyamurinda, described as an elderly and fervent member of the sect. The grave was discovered behind the middle of three small buildings, next to a grove of banana trees.

Inside, the police found 3 adult males, 33 women, 27 girls and 17 boys, according to the Ugandan police department's only pathologist, Thaddeus Barungi. The gender of one body could not be determined.

At least one of the main leaders, Credonia Mwerinde -- a woman who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary -- stayed at the house from time to time, Ms. Nalongo said. She also said that Ms. Mwerinde tried to get her to join the cult, but only if she would sell her property and had more than 250,000 Ugandan shillings, about $175.

Neighbors said that last September, the cult members opened a small shop in a nearby village, selling their clothes at cheap prices. Then recently, Ms. Nalongo said, they stopped cultivating the fields, where they grew cassava, beans and potatoes. "They would say, 'Now we are going to heaven. There is no need to dig,' " she said. She also said that a pickup truck often came to the house in the middle of the night, in January and February, leading her and others in the village to now believe that the victims buried here were killed elsewhere.

Late in the afternoon, after the bodies were reburied in the grave after quick autopsies, Peter Muhumuza, a nephew of the owner, locked up the house and spoke briefly about his own tragedy: His wife Florence and their five children apparently died in the church fire. He lives and works in the capital city, Kampala, about six hours away, and said his family joined the cult secretly. He too said he could not understand how so many people could die without anyone finding out until now. "I think they were poisoned," he said. "You can't kill those people without alarm."

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