Grim evidence of worst cult slaughter

Up to 1,000 followers feared dead as more graves found in Uganda

The Guardian (UK), March 29, 2000
By Anna Borzello in Rugazi and David Hearst

Up to 1,000 members of a fanatical sect who were persuaded by their leaders to hand over their possessions in preparation for the end of the world, are feared dead in south-west Uganda, in what could prove to be the world's worst cult killing.

Investigators yesterday said there were five more suspected graves, after digging up 28 bodies from under the freshly cemented floor of a cult leader's home, the fourth mass grave to be uncovered in a week. As nightfall stopped the excruciating work of pulling the decomposing corpses out with ropes - labour undertaken by prisoners on release from a local jail - many more bodies appeared to remain. Most of the victims had been strangled.

Assuman Mugenyi, Uganda's chief police spokesman, said that five other compounds belonging to the sect were still to be examined. The sect had up to 1,000 members and authorities fear most may have been murdered. The latest mass grave was uncovered at the home of a defrocked priest, Dominic Kataribabo, who died in the fire which killed at least 330 followers on March 17. To date, nearly 600 bodies have been found.

Police initially treated the deaths at Kanungu as mass suicide, believing followers set themselves alight in the belief that the church was Noah's ark and the Virgin Mary was coming to take them to heaven.

Later, when six decomposing bodies were found in a pit latrine inside the church compound, police decided to treat the deaths as murder and rumours began to spread that several of the leaders had escaped.

The man believed to have organised the mass slaughter, failed politician Joseph Kibwetere, called himself the head apostle of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

One police theory is that Mr Kibwetere and a former prostitute turned principal prophetess, Cledonia Mwerinde, persuaded followers to sell their belongings and hand over their money in return for a place in heaven when the world ended, on the eve of the millennium.

When the world did not end, it is thought that the followers began demanding back their money.

Some now contend that the cult's entire existence was a gigantic fraud designed to enrich its leaders - Kibwetere and Mwerinde - who lured the gullible and inadequate into the church with promises of salvation. Cult followers did not mix with their leaders and led a harsh life. They wore a uniform, ate sparsely, refrained from sex and were not allowed to speak for fear of bearing false witness. They also believed their leaders received direct messages from the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Among the bodies recovered yesterday in the pit under the house of Kataribabo in Rugazi, were 20 children. Police said they expected to find many more bodies when they resume work today.

A further 74 bodies were found in the garden at the back of the pretty brick house, which overlooks gently rolling hills, a shining lake and the plains of the Western Rift valley in western Uganda.

Prisoners wearing plastic gloves heaved the bodies out of the pit, and spread them on the ground for examination by police. "They look like they have been here about a month and at least half the bodies have been strangled. We will have to wait for the results of our tests before we learn how the others died," said police pathologist Thaddeus Barungi, bending over to point out a twist of rope around the neck of one corpse.

A total of 255 bodies - most of them women and children - have been found so far on the Rugazi sites and behind a house used by the Ten Commandments cult in nearby Buhunga. The Buhunga site revealed 153 bodies.

Local people, pressed in silence against the wire fence of the Rugazi compound, watched in silence as the bodies were brought out yesterday. "They were religious people. We would never have expected them to kill," said local council chairman Gregory Katurebe.

"They told us they were digging a pit in the garden to build a latrine. It was hard to see what was really happening because of the fence which meant we couldn't see inside. And they kept to themselves."

Kataribabo was a Catholic teacher in the early 1980s. Cult members had been using his home for the last few years.

However, in early March followers began leaving the house for their headquarters at Kanungu.

Kataribabo was the last to leave, on March 12. His body was one of only two to have been identified by police inside the church: his charred remains stretched out by the door, his dog collar seared into his neck from the heat.

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