Uganda calls for help in catching cult leaders

Live News 24, April 3, 2000
By Adrian Blomfield

Kanungu - Ugandans gathered on Sunday to mourn over 900 people police say were murdered by leaders of a Christian Doomsday sect and heard a senior government official call for international help in tracking them down. Speaking after laying a wreath at a mass grave where the charred bodies of over 500 people were interred two weeks ago after their church was torched, Vice-President Speciosa Kazibwe said she believed the cult leaders were on the run.

"I believe they (the cult leaders) are still alive. The whole world has to help us catch them," Kazibwe said.

"They had started to spread to Tanzania and Kenya and we have started investigations to see if they have connections with Europe. This was murder, I am satisfied with that," she added.

Kazibwe said the estimated that over 1 000 people had been killed by the cult leaders, many of them women and children, adding that investigators were likely to find more mass graves.

Poverty, remoteness factors in the massacre

The heavily populated Kigezi district, where the sect had its headquarters at Kanungu, is one of Uganda's poorest.

Analysts say its poverty, the impact of Aids and regional instability -- it borders Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- provided fertile ground for the sect's message that the world was about to end. Some witnesses have suggested a large number of the cult's members came from Rwanda, where some 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 1994. A multinational war has been raging for the past year and a half in the Congo.

"This place is very remote. It is very easy to get confused, to get taken to a place like this and be told the end of the world is coming," Kazibwe said. She said she found it hard to console the bereaved.

"What other consolation can we give to people when children, unsuspecting women and men were murdered?" she asked.

Followers were told to sell all their possessions and donate the proceeds to the Church. But when the apocalypse did not come on 31 December, 1999 as predicted, some members apparently began asking for their money back, sparking the killings.

Hundreds of local residents, many of them relatives of the victims, gathered for Sunday's inter-denominational service at the village where the saga began two weeks ago when the 500 bodies were found in the charred remains of the church.

Police initially described the incident as mass suicide, but after the discovery of three mass graves containing nearly 400 more bodies -- with evidence that they were strangled, poisoned or hacked to death -- they are treating the case as murder.

Catholic, Muslim and Protestant leaders were joined on Sunday in Kanungu by government officials, including Kazibwe, to lay flowers at the church, followed by a service of prayer.

Police compiling list of victims

Meanwhile police said they were compiling a comprehensive list of the victims whose bodies had been discovered at various sites, all linked to the sect.

Digging for further suspected mass graves was suspended at the weekend to allow the ill-equipped police team -- Uganda's police force has only one pathologist -- to beef up its resources with possible help from abroad. Other police units were scouring the nearby countryside, examining houses and locations once used by the sect led by former Roman Catholic Joseph Kibwetere.

Kibwetere's former wife Theresa has said he had been a good husband and a deeply religious man until falling under the influence of former prostitute Gredonia Mwerinda, who claimed to speak to the Virgin Mary and her sister. However other former associates have described Kibwetere as a violent man prone to seizures who was briefly detained in a mental institution for manic depression in 1998.

Speaking at the family farm on Saturday, Theresa said she had left the cult, along with her children, because she disagreed with some its bizarre practices including a ban on speech, medical care and soap.

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