Questions Around Ugandan Massacre

The Associated Press, April 3, 2000
By Tim Sullivan

RUGAZI, Uganda (AP) - Sound carries easily from the village to the top of the hill, to the place where an excommunicated priest exhorted followers to await the apocalypse, and where later two hidden graves disgorged over 150 rotting corpses.

The hilltop compound can be seen from homes, from schools, from the village clinic. A week after the bodies were discovered, the choking stench of decaying flesh still fills the air.

Today, everyone in Rugazi knows what happened where the people they called "the visionaries" gathered.

But after hundreds of bodies were found here and at similar spots across the lush hills of southwestern Uganda, the question remains: How could so many people not see what was happening in their midst?

It's a question they ask with special urgency in Rugazi.

"How this could happen without anyone else's knowledge?" demanded Deos Bagomba, head catechism teacher at the Roman Catholic church just in front of the compound built by excommunicated parish priest Dominic Kataribabo. "I'm still asking people."

There are a few explanations: Cult members and villagers lived side-by-side but were still divided; hundreds of cult followers came and went at odd hours; cult leaders knew how to stop officials from probing too closely.

And there was a silent fear: Maybe, just maybe, the cult leaders had powers that would make it better to steer clear of them.

Everyone here, however, insists they had no idea there were corpses buried at Kataribabo's compound, where followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God often gathered for prayers - and where 155 of their bodies were discovered.

"We didn't know anything about the killing," said Amos Agaba, a 21-year-old mechanic who lives nearby, and who walked up one day recently to look at the now-abandoned site. "We heard no sounds."

The same words are repeated in Buhonga and Rushojwa, two other southwestern villages where mass graves were found. Including a fire at another cult compound, in Kanungu - a fire that police say killed about 530 people and set off the investigation that led to the discovery of the mass graves - at least 924 people are believed to have perished in all.

Kataribabo is believed among the dead in the fire.

Others, including the two top leaders, are widely thought to have fled.

More than anything, it was the cult's isolation that kept villagers from discovering the killings.

For years in Rugazi, cult members had lived and prayed at the compound - sometimes hundreds at a time - but they had almost no contact with local villagers. To the people of Rugazi, the cult members were strangers who spoke only in the hand gestures demanded by sect leaders.

"There were two different worlds, completely detached," said Stephen Biru, 28, an English teacher at St. Michael's High School.

The cult's actions apparently were dictated by visions of a coming apocalypse, where believers would be carried away on homemade arks and everyone else would perish.

In preparation, the leaders made more and more demands of their followers: no speaking, no sex, little food, minimal contact with outsiders. Cult members sold their possessions and cut contact with relatives. They spent hour after hour in prayer.

At least a couple of times, Ugandan authorities did look into cult activities.

In Rushojwa, site of another mass grave, officials contacted police in connection with a series of sudden deaths among cult children.

Officials arrived, but left after the group showed they were a registered non-governmental organization. The deaths, they were told, were the result of malaria.

In Rugazi, police appeared once during a meeting at Kataribabo's compound. Again, cult leaders produced registration documents, paid a tax to hold the meeting, and the authorities left.

A final explanation for the villagers' ignorance lies deeper, in traditional beliefs and an undercurrent of fear.

In a country where the vast majority of the people believe in the supernatural, the strangeness of the sect and the leaders' control over their followers were unnerving.

"We thought if we'd try to stop them they'd curse us ... Maybe they have spirits," said Tushabe Kizito, bursar at St. Michael's High School.

Sometimes, though, the claims of ignorance strain credulity.

Arsen Oworyanawe, Kataribabo's brother, lives in a small house a few feet away from the mass graves.

Reed mats placed around the graves shielded the carnage from view, says Oworyanawe. Cult members told people the mats were hiding pit toilets.

Stooped by his 78 years and largely deaf, he loudly insists that he had no idea of what was happening.

"I didn't know," he all but shouts. "I didn't know what was happening here."

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