Ugandan vice president: Cult leaders still alive

Hundreds mourn dead at memorial service for sect victims

CNN News, April 2, 2000

KANUNGU, Uganda -- The doomsday cult leaders believed to be responsible for the murders of nearly 1,000 people in southwest Uganda are alive and on the run from the law, Ugandan Vice President Speciosa Kazibwe said Sunday.

"I believe they are still alive. The whole world has to help us catch them," Kazibwe said after laying a wreath at the mass grave where more than 500 cult victims were buried.

"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.

Ugandan police are pursuing international arrest warrants for Credonia Mwerinde, Joseph Kibwetere and three other suspected cult leaders. Kibwetere, 64, is believed by some of his family members to have perished in the church fire, although other reports have said he could have escaped. Mwerinde's whereabouts at the time of the fire are unknown. Hundreds of friends and relatives gathered Sunday in Kanungu to mourn the dead, many of them children, who were the apparent victims of ultimately fatal religious fervor. The Ugandan government blames the cult for the deaths of at least 924 people.

In addition to the March 17 burning deaths of more than 500 people in a sealed church at the sect's headquarters in Kanungu, police have discovered mass graves at Rugazi, Rushojwa and Bhunga, all in southwest Uganda. Some victims appeared to have been knifed or strangled.

Analysts try to answer why

It's believed the number of deaths linked to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God has exceeded the number who died in another cult-linked tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.. The People's Temple mass suicide and killings claimed 913 lives in the jungles of Guyana. Ugandan officials are now left with some haunting questions: Where are those responsible for the deaths? How did so many fall victim to so few? What makes some people susceptible to religious zealotry?

Some witnesses have told Reuters news agency that a large number of the cult's members came from Rwanda, where some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 1994.

Analysts say Uganda's rampant poverty, the impact of the AIDS epidemic and insecurity over regional conflicts -- Uganda borders Rwanda and the unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo -- made some people easy prey for a charismatic leader and the cult's message that the world was to end December 31, 1999.

Those close to the cult and the investigation believe that 48-year-old Mwerinde, known within the sect as "The Programmer," may have instigated the killings.

"It was that Mwerinde who had all those people killed," said the Rev. Paul Ikazire, a Roman Catholic priest who had left the church and joined Mwerinde's sect from 1991 to 1994. He said the woman was "obsessed with the desire to obtain the property of her followers."

Friends and acquaintances -- including Mwerinde's former common-law husband Eric Mazima -- characterize her as greedy and cunning. Mwerinde apparently rose from poverty to become the owner of a shop that sold banana beer and bootleg booze.

Weeks after her business went bankrupt in mid-1988, Mwerinde claimed to start seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, said Mazima, who is also her former business partner.

As a Christian "apostle," Mwerinde enlisted the support of hundreds of followers, particularly disaffected Roman Catholics. Once recruits joined, they were encouraged to give up their possessions to the cause. Outsiders were banned from visiting members.

Followers were subjected to a draconian regimen that divided mothers from children and husbands from wives, and deprived them of sleep and food. Children were locked up from dusk until dawn. Members observed a code of silence that allowed them to communicate only with hand signals.

Mwerinde "was able to fool many people," said Nalongo Rukanyangira, a childhood friend in Kanungu, 160 miles (255 kilometers) southwest of Uganda's capital, Kampala.

Three days before the Kanungu church inferno, Rukanyangira entered the sect's compound and saw Mwerinde, dressed completely in red, handing out red sandals to followers who, one by one, came in silence to kneel at her feet. Some witnesses have suggested that a large number of the cult's members came from nearby Rwanda, where ethnic strife has led hundreds of thousands of deaths in recent years.

Preparing for the end?

Investigators now believe the sect's members were the victims of murder, not mass suicide -- although evidence blurs the distinction.

The phrases "Let us go and burn," and, inches away, "Let us kill ourselves," were found scrawled across a blackboard in the cult compound. Still other clues point to a plan for the killings.

Beginning in early March, the cult apparently began liquidating its assets. Neighbors say movement members sold at least 100 head of cattle and communal furniture, and held sales at two of the sect's local shops.

The night before the church blaze, the cult's farm manager walked into the Kanungu police station and left the title to the compound's land and a mysterious goodbye note, according to local constable Willy Abiku. The next morning, a teen-age sect member saw a man nailing shut the wooden windows of the chapel, police say. Another witness said she saw white-and-green robed cult members walking to the building. Within minutes, it was engulfed in flames.

A neighbor of one prominent cult member said that leader Kibwetere had told followers to come and see Jesus at Kanungu days before the fire. About 500 members died in what was believed to be a gasoline-fueled blaze. "When they were leaving (the village of Sweswe), we tried to ask where they were going and they said they were going to pray at Kanungu," said Aida Kaguza, describing a conversation with her neighbor John Katebalirwe. Katebalirwe told her that Kibwetere wrote his followers, urging the faithful to go to the sect's headquarters in southwestern Uganda. "They had been called by a letter that their leader had received a vision from God that they would go and see Jesus," Kaguza said. "I don't know if those who went from here were burned or murdered. All I know is that they have not come back."

Search for bodies still on hold

Ugandan police on Saturday postponed efforts to find more bodies of cult followers because they don't have enough body bags or masks and protective clothing for searchers.

Meanwhile, investigators said they would check sites where they suspect graves are located and guard them.

"There will be no more exhumations until we have the logistics in place," police spokesman Eric Naigambi said. "Now all we are doing is building up statistics."

The nation's one pathologist is faced with the grim task of performing hundreds of post-mortem examinations.

"We are appealing for the international community to come forward to help...if an organization can help us exhume, examine and preserve the bodies," Naigambi said.

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