Parents belonging to doomsday sect led children to their deaths

MSNBC News, Associated Press, April 3, 2000

BUNYARIGI, Uganda, April 3 - After her young grandchildren's abrupt departure, after the gas-fueled flames and the charred remains, 74-year-old Margaret Kibetenga wonders if there's something she could have done.

On Dec. 28, her daughter-in-law came to her mud-walled home to fetch two children she had left in Kibetenga's care. Saying she needed to take them to visit a sick relative, Jane Ayebare began packing her youngsters' belongings.

When Ayebare muttered something about the end of the world being near, Kibetenga thought little of it. Ayebare had joined a strange religious group, but as far as Kibetenga was concerned, she was still Catholic. That's all that mattered.

Of course, the world didn't end Dec. 31, as the sect had predicted. But for Ayebare and her four children, life ended 10 weeks later in the flames of a sealed chapel belonging to Uganda's doomsday cult.

They were not alone. Terrified, trusting or willingly marching off to glory, children of the cult streamed out of hill villages by the hundreds to die trapped in the flames of the sealed church or by ropes and knives in the hands of grown-ups.

Children made up a large part of the bodies recovered from mass graves in southwestern Uganda since the March 17 inferno at the chapel at Kanungu alerted the world, and some Ugandans, to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. Authorities now are pursuing the sect's leaders, who they believe masterminded the murders of at least 924 people.

''I never took it seriously,'' Kibetenga now says, her eyes dropping to the ground.

For the movement, childhood was an occasion of sin. ''These days ... the majority of the youths go to hell; only very few go to heaven in a day,'' its handbook states. The sect's leaders went to brutal lengths to ensure children wouldn't fall into what they believed were the clutches of Satan.

In the early 1990s, Credonia Mrewinde, one of the movement's founders, forced 60 children to live in a 15-by-40-foot backyard shed in the village of Kabumba, according to Juvenal Rugambwa, son of sect leader Joseph Kibwetere.

He said the shed's windows were nailed shut and the children forced to sleep on the dirt floor, where many contracted scabies, a contagious skin disease.

Children and their parents were placed in separate living quarters when they joined the sect, Rugambwa and former sect members said. Parents also were forced to withdraw their children from school.

Rev. Paolino Tomaino, who became acquainted with the sect when he worked in Kabumba from 1976 to 1989, says it was inevitable that the children would follow their parents, even to their deaths.

''You would expect a Uganda child to follow his parent,'' Tomaino said. ''They were with their parents. I'm sure they couldn't leave.''

John Katebalirwe sold his mud hut for $30, then forced his wife, 27-year-old married daughter and her seven younger brothers and sisters away to attend a gathering at sect headquarters in Kanungu. Neighbors say the wife and eight children went with him unwillingly.

''He told us he was going to pray in Kanungu,'' said Aida Kaguze, who bought the hut from Katebalirwe. ''They had heard from God, and they were going to meet Jesus.''

On March 8, Katarina Tumuhimbise's daughters, aged 8 and 14, left the remote western foothill village of Sweswe with adults who were leading other children to the March 18 dedication of a new church at the sect's home in Kanungu.

Residents in Sweswe said the girls' parents couldn't afford to go to Kanungu. Instead, they stayed behind with their three younger children at their mud hut, decorated by a shrine with straw prayer mats and pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the pope.

The father insisted to his neighbors that he had left the cult but wasn't able to stop his girls from going since they still were members.

Tumuhimbse, rosaries draped around her neck as she spoke to a reporter, denied membership as well and said a woman in the sect had taken her children away. The father chased after them, but in vain.

Their daughters were among the 530 sect members on March 17 who entered the chapel on the sect's main compound in Kanungu to pray. Within minutes, they were enveloped by what police believe was a gas-fueled fire sparked by an explosive combination of water and sulphuric acid.

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