Prophecy's Price

Washington Post Foreign Service, April 1, 2000
By Karl Vick

When World Did Not End, Police Say, Ugandan Cult Orchestrated Doomsday KASESE, Uganda-The man in black came into John Musoke's shop on March 15, clutching a rosary and asking for battery acid. A lot of it. "I have a problem," said the distinguished-looking older man, who signed the receipt "Father Dominic." He bargained a bit before paying $167 for more than 13 gallons of sulfuric acid, telling a curious Musoke that it was to replenish batteries used for power at a remote seminary.

"I pestered," Musoke said, "because it was a bit too much."

Two days later and 60 miles away in Kanungu, a fireball turned at least 330 people to bone and ash in a cramped concrete building with boarded-up windows. Poring over the doomsday cult's compound a day or so later, police found the receipt. But the real nature of Father Dominic Kataribabo's "problem" would not become apparent for another week: It was bodies--hundreds of them.

Ugandan authorities said they have little solid evidence who killed at least 725 people whose corpses have been recovered since March 17, most packed into narrow, deep mass graves still being unearthed around southwestern Uganda. But suspicion has locked firmly on the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a secretive organization that over a decade moved from fundamentalist revivalism to classic cult to what police now call a conspiracy to commit mass murder. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Thursday that documents listing total membership suggest the number of dead could reach into the thousands. The search for clues leads into the heart of the cult itself. The leaders' doomsday prophecy foretold "rivers running red" and food turning to poison. Former members recall filling out forms asking them to commit to martyrdom. "Yes, I was ready to die," said Abdon Bishoboorokire, 54, who left the cult in 1994.

But many of the same former believers said they are as stunned as anyone by the body count. After all, the idea of enduring the strict rules of the cult--no speaking, no drinking, no sex, no smoking, no soap and precious little food--was to build the spiritual fortitude to survive the apocalypse that would kill everyone else.

"They were convinced they would stay in the Holy Land but the rest of the world would die," said Yacob Tibanyendera, 67, who lost his wife, three daughters and 16 grandchildren to the sect. He believes they are all dead. The Ten Commandments sect emerged from two forces, experts and officials said. One was the search for relief from the daily hardship most Africans endure. Christian church membership is growing faster on Africa than on any other continent, and the fastest growth has been among charismatic ministries that provide "easy answers to the difficult questions," said Grace Kaiso, executive secretary of the Uganda Joint Christian Council. "And there's the question of AIDS, people seeing so many people die. And there are these [scripture] passages that refer to the end of the world. The climate was right for marshaling some of these sects."

The cult emerged from a prolonged fever of religious visions in eastern central Africa in the late 1970s. A woman reported seeing the Virgin Mary on a soccer field in Kibeo, Rwanda, and as pilgrims flocked to the site other visions were reported. In 1989, a woman named Credonia Mwerinde came to the home of a failed Ugandan politician, Joseph Kibwetere, to relate what she had seen: the Virgin Mary, complaining that the world was off course because people had departed from the Ten Commandments.

Kibwetere listened, then invited the woman and two friends into his home, his wife told reporters. By the time she ordered them to leave, for beating their children and laying down arbitrary rules, a partnership had been formed: Kibwetere out front, eventually donning the robes of a Catholic bishop, and Mwerinde behind the scenes.

"Kibwetere could not give orders as such," said Francis Byaruhanga, 45, a former cult member. "He was put there as the leader, but the whole program was Mwerinde, that woman."

Their message, delivered in area Catholic churches, brought a steady stream of adherents, including several priests. At the first service Bishoboorokire attended, one of Mwerinde's associates placed her foot on the chest of everyone there, to stomp the evil spirits out of them. Paulina Zikanga said she signed on after acolytes visited her house to drive away the "demons" that had been making her children sick.

"I joined because when they preached the Ten Commandments, I felt I had in fact lost them, so I had to join that group," Bishoboorokire said. When their local priests, including Dominic Kataribabo, signed up, "the people had to follow."

Believers assembled under leaders in compounds off limits to neighbors, at first only to work, then to live. The Catholic Church was declared an enemy, badly in need of reform. Their own rules, they were told, came from the Virgin Mary, as channeled through Mwerinde.

No medical care, the Virgin said. Eat only one meal on Friday and Monday. Stray and "the Virgin Mary and Jesus will curse you," one ex-member recalled being told.

It was the Holy Mother, Mwerinde said, who decided that all followers must sell whatever they own and hand over the proceeds to the church. Those who did were given green, black or white gowns. That order served to thin the growing ranks. One priest defected with about 70 followers.

"Their preaching was so good, but taking the money was a problem," said Claudio Sekibibi, 64, adding that he also had trouble with another proclamation: that on a specific date, the world would end for everyone but them.

"They used to say in the new world it would be like the time of Adam and Eve: no clothes, no cultivating, no work," he said. His wife, who remained in the cult, continued to believe.

"I was telling her all the time, 'Jesus went to heaven after death. Mary, his mother, went to heaven after death. Who are you to go to heaven without dying?' " Sekibibi said.

Taken in tandem, the two prophecies would prove combustible. Believers took it in stride when the world did not end as predicted in 1992. But when the next deadline passed, in 1995, "people started grumbling," said Zikanga, who left the cult in 1998. "They were insisting that if the world doesn't end, [the cult] should refund their money."

The reckoning was put off until December 1999. As membership grew with the approach of the millennium, adherents were dispersed to compounds nestled throughout the lush hills between the borders of Congo and Rwanda. At Buhunga, where 153 bodies would later be unearthed, new members were indoctrinated. At Father Dominic's estate in Rugazi, where 155 corpses would be found, members attended courses in a primitive dormitory built behind his 10-room house. An interior wall bears a poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of the slaughter of 22 recent Catholic converts by a pagan king: "Uganda's martyrs" were held up as role models in the cult, former members said.

"As we had 22 martyrs, we expect to get big numbers from you," Byaruhanga recalled being told by the leaders. " 'You will be martyrs of Uganda.' That was eight years ago. They had been planning this from the beginning." The group remained in relatively good standing with most local officials, so good that police have detained an assistant district commissioner who reportedly defended the group when residents complained. In 1997, one senior official attended the dedication of a primary school on the sect's headquarters compound, a tightly packed complex on a hillside adjoining the village of Kanungu, 200 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala. The land had belonged to Mwerinde's late father. Uganda's New Vision newspaper reported that the school was later closed when children were found to be sleeping uncovered on a dirt floor.

Miles away, on the farm of lay leader Joseph Nymurinda, the village chairman complained to his superiors about the number of children at the cult compound there, most unaccompanied by their parents, few attending school. Of the 81 bodies recovered from a pit behind the main house on Thursday, 44 were children.

Members' isolation was total, but not uninterrupted. Cult members might come home to their families for two or three months a year. And there was a break of perhaps six months in 1998 because of dangers presented by nearby rebels. But the interval also coincided with the dates another Ugandan newspaper, the Monitor, reported Kibwetere was receiving treatment in a Kampala mental hospital for bipolar disorder, or manic depression.

When cult members returned to the fields, Mwerinde declared they should not plant crops, such as cassava, that take a year to mature because the world might end before harvest. Instead, they cultivated beans, potatoes and other foods that could be ready in three or four months.

Shops were set up to sell maize flour the cult would no longer need. In the closing months of 1999, members' clothes could be had for pennies. Believers talked with former believers, asking them to reconsider, warning that time was short. Zikanga batted away one pitch in August, then in December ran into Father Dominic on her way to church.

"They tried to convince me that they were going to heaven, and if I refused and didn't make it to heaven it was not their fault," she said. Zikanga demurred, but others were drawn in. Sekibibi last saw his wife the morning of Dec. 22. Tibanyendera's wife and daughters left with the children on Dec. 26 for "the Holy Land," as the Kanungu compound was known.

Whether disillusionment came instead of deliverance on the dawn of Jan. 1 is mostly speculation. Witnesses have been hard to come by.

"Maybe there came a time when [followers] wanted their money," said Tibanyendera, echoing the prevailing police theory, "and [cult leaders] killed them."

Behind the dormitory on Father Dominic's property, a fence went up around the garden where 74 bodies would later be exhumed. A similar barrier blocked Night Nalongo's view of the cult compound owned by Nymurinda. But in January, she said, the pickup truck that sometimes visited the compound in the middle of the night began coming more often, at least twice a week. The visits continued through February.

Whatever was happening in private, the cult leadership kept up a brave front. It mailed out fresh copies of its manifesto, "A Timely Message From Heaven: The End of the Present Time." Doomsday was pushed back to Dec. 31, 2000.

And in March, members were summoned again to Kanungu. Cult leaders told local officials the gathering was to be a celebration, slated for Saturday, March 18. Late on Friday morning, a bell rang summoning the faithful to the building with the boarded-over windows. The explosion was heard a half-hour later, and the neighbors who sprinted from a quarter mile away found bodies still burning.

But no one was left alive.

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