Uganda sect members speak of doom

Former believer first to allude to reason for alleged killings

MSNBC News, April 3, 2000

KANUNGU, Uganda, April 3 - A former member of a Christian doomsday sect says the cult's unfulfilled doomsday prophecy spurred opposition and possibly the murder of sect dissidents. The allegation came Sunday as dignitaries joined residents of Kanungu and nearby villages in southwestern Uganda to deplore the deaths of 924 members of a reclusive Christian doomsday sect who authorities say were killed by their leaders.

UNTIL SUNDAY, no sect member, past or present, had confirmed the common belief here: The failure of the world to end Dec. 31 led members to demand belongings they had surrendered to join the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God - a challenge that led to retaliation by sect leaders.

A March 17 blaze inside the chapel of the sect's secretive compound in Kanungu burned 530 sect members alive. Authorities initially termed the deaths a mass suicide, but the discovery of the bodies of six slain men in a compound latrine soon shifted that assessment to murder.

Since then, mass graves at three other compounds linked to the cult have yielded 388 more bodies, many stabbed and strangled. The pungent scent of rotting bodies emanating Sunday from a latrine in the main Kanungu compound suggested the toll could still rise.

At least one cult compound, in the remote foothills of western Uganda's Mountains of the Moon, has yet to be searched. Peter Ahimbisibwe, whose mother and sister died in the fire two weeks ago, said sect members began pressing Credonia Mwerinde, a movement founder who was known as "The Programmer," about the fate of their property during worship services.

"The people who sold their property would inquire one-by-one. Whoever would inquire would disappear," said Ahimbisibwe, 17.

Boarding Up Exits

Ahimbisibwe also said he saw a man carrying a hammer and nails early March 17. It is partly this testimony, authorities say, that has persuaded them that windows and doors were blocked to prevent sect members from leaving the chapel before the flames erupted - or fleeing afterward. Sect members were "always preparing" to go to another world, Ahimbisibwe said. But when they entered the chapel that morning for prayers dressed in the sect's uniform of green-and-white robes, they had no idea of what was about to happen, he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of townspeople gathered on a hilltop soccer field Sunday to mourn the neighbors they barely knew.

Ugandan Vice President Speciosa Kazibwe called the architects of the deadliest cult tragedy in modern history "diabolic, malevolent criminals masquerading as holy and religious people."

During the memorial service, Kazibwe acknowledged the failure of the country's police and intelligence agencies to expose sect. "Through deception and conspiracy, these criminals outwitted the security network (and) exploited the ignorance and illiteracy of thousands," she said, adding that the government planned to convene an interagency group to study the country's cults.

Failure To Expose Sect

The Rev. Grace Kaiso, the head of the Uganda Joint Christian Council, criticized the country's churches for failing to expose the sect. "How come that despite our elaborate parish network as churches, we failed to detect the fate that befell so many of our brothers, sisters and children?" he asked.

Seated in the crowd as speakers vilified her estranged husband as a murderer was Therese Kibwetere. Authorities are pursuing Joseph Kibwetere, the sect's self-described "bishop," but his son Juvenal Mugambwa has said he was killed in the Kanungu fire.

Therese Kibwetere said her priest in her village of Kabumba persuaded her to attend Sunday's ceremony. Asked if she felt she owed the victims and their relatives an apology, she replied: "What should I have done?" and noted that 25 of the dead were from her village.

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