RUSHOJWA, Uganda, March 30, 2000 (Reuters) - They forbade talking, sex or even the use of soap.
But their fanatical insistence on the avoidance of sin apparently did not stop the leaders of Uganda's Doomsday cult from murdering hundreds of their followers.
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was led by a 68-year old failed politician and self-styled prophet Joseph Kibwetere, who claimed to talk directly to Jesus. Associates describe him as a violent man prone to seizures.
At his side was Gredonia Mwerinda, a former prostitute who claimed to have the ear of the Virgin Mary, and "Father" Dominic Kataribabo, a former Catholic priest with a masters degree in theology and a reputation as a studious and religious man.
But Kataribabo was also a man with a dark secret.
Police this week unearthed 155 bodies from two mass graves in the former priest's house and garden, bringing to around 800 the estimated number of cult followers found dead. Many of the corpses in the priest's garden in Rugazi appeared to have been strangled to death in recent months. Neighbours and relatives say they knew Kataribabo had been digging in his back garden, but never suspected the grisly purpose of his exertions. "He was a good man, good to his followers, good to his family and good to people in general," Kataribabo's nephew Bagambe Apex said. "There is no way we ever expected something like this could happen." His relatives say the quiet and studious priest may have fallen under the evil spell of Kibwetere and Mwerinda.
Just days before around 500 cult followers were burned to death in a church in Kanungu in southwest Uganda, Kataribabo was seen buying 40 litres of sulphuric acid -- a chemical police suspect was used to fuel the murderous inferno.
Where he is now remains a mystery. Police initially said the 64-year-old priest's body was found among the charred corpses at Kanungu. Now they say he may have survived and be on the run with other leaders of the sect.
Men and women, even if they were married, were forbidden from meeting except at prayer time. Followers were not allowed to speak and instead had to communicate by gestures.
Soap was banned and cultists were forced to bathe with washing powder meant for clothes.
Followers had a spartan, highly regulated lifestyle with most of the day spent in manual labour or praying. Former members say they were woken at 3 a.m. to pray for an hour, and were forced to fast twice a week. Not surprisingly they had little contact with locals. Even so, some villagers began to resent their fanatical neighbours.
"As time went on we started getting more and more scared of them," said Kisembo Didas, a farmer in Rugazi. "We thought they were dangerous, a cult of Satan. They used to behave abnormally, suddenly becoming paralysed in the street and then talking nonsense."
Discipline within the cult seems to have begun breaking down when Doomsday did not arrive last year, as Kibwetere had said.
Some cult members, who had been asked to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the church, appeared to have started asking for their money back -- a possible motive for the mass killings.
Father Paul Ikazire said he was among the sect's leaders before leaving in 1994. He described Kibwetere as a violent tempered man who often had seizures, but said the real power behind the throne was Gredonia Mwerinda. "She used to bring in messages from the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael," Ikazire said. "She would come in and say things like the Virgin Mary wants you to bring more money."