The root of all evil

Money may have been motive in massacre of Ugandan cult members

Dallas Morning News, April 3, 2000
By Ian Fisher

KANUNGU, Uganda - A member of a doomsday cult has provided what appears to be the first corroboration of the apparent motive for one of the largest mass killings in recent times.

Peter Ahimbisibwe, who police say may be the only surviving member of the cult, said Sunday that a mutiny had been brewing over money among members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. Many members had sold their property and turned over the proceeds to the cult leaders on the promise that the world would end as the year 2000 arrived. Mr. Ahimbisibwe, 17, said members of the cult began to rise at church services after Jan. 1 and ask cult leaders a difficult question: Where will we live, they asked, now that we have sold our property and the world has not ended?

"The people who sold their property would inquire one by one," Mr. Ahimbisibwe said. "Whoever would inquire, they would disappear." Mr. Ahimbisibwe allowed himself to be interviewed for only a few minutes before a large prayer service Sunday in memory of the 924 cult members whose bodies have been discovered in recent days. After the service, he refused to talk further unless reporters paid him.

Investigators declined to speculate Sunday on whether Mr. Ahimbisibwe's entire account was credible. But they did little to discount his story, saying they believed that he left the group's compound in Kanungu on the morning of March 17, before the fire in which Ugandan officials say 530 people died, including his mother and sister. One investigator said, however, that Mr. Ahimbisibwe occasionally becomes "confused."

With the death toll at 924, the Uganda killings surpassed the 1978 Jonestown tragedy in Guyana to become the worst cult-related mass killing of modern times. In Guyana, 913 people died.

On Sunday, after a week in which investigators uncovered hundreds of bodies in three Ugandan towns, more than 1,000 people gathered on a soccer field not far from the group's compound. Surrounded by high green hills, religious leaders - Catholic, Protestant and Muslim - prayed for the dead and urged the living not to be fooled by cults promising quick relief from poverty. Uganda's vice president, Dr. Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, apologized for the government's failure to stop the cult before the deaths, which the police originally said they believed were a mass suicide.

"These were callously, well-orchestrated mass murders perpetrated by a network of diabolic, malevolent criminals masquerading as religious people," she said.

Ms. Kazibwe, a physician, raised an issue often taboo in Africa: mental illness. Joseph Kibwetere, the cult's main leader, was reportedly diagnosed as a manic depressive and was hospitalized in 1998. Ms. Kazibwe said she longed for the day when "mental health is made an important subject and taken as a priority."

Theresa Kibwetere, the cult leader's estranged wife, also stood briefly before the crowd. She did not speak but afterward said her priest suggested that she go to the service.

"What should I have done?" she said. Referring to the cult, she added, "I disliked what they did."

The police said Sunday that they had suspended the search for more bodies, though they believed that there were several more mass graves around the section of southwestern Uganda where the cult was active. In fact, investigators say they believe that there are many more bodies in a pit latrine on the site of the compound where they already found six bodies. A local official says firefighters digging for the bodies there got tired after retrieving the six bodies and "deceived" officials by saying there were no more.

A police spokesman, Assuman Mugenyi, said Sunday that government officials were requiring the diggers and investigators to wear protective gear while unearthing mass graves. So far, though, most of the work has been done by barefoot prisoners.

Mr. Mugenyi said the police were waiting for the protective gear so that digging could resume.

In the interview, Mr. Ahimbisibwe, who is from Kanungu, described the final few days of the cult. He did not describe exactly how members who questioned the selling of their property "disappeared," though he said he had no indication that people were dying, other than several who had been ill. In the final week, he said, cult leaders - particularly Credonia Mwerinde, who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary - had urged them to prepare for the end of this world and the start of a better one for believers. But there was no talk of mass suicide, he said.

"The followers were not told about death," he said. "But they were expecting to be taken."

Mr. Ahimbisibwe said his mother and sister had lived at the cult compound for about a year. He had lived there only for a week, though he said he was a frequent visitor. He said that in the final week he did not see Mr. Kibwetere at the compound. The police speculate that Mr. Kibwetere, Ms. Mwerinde and two other cult leaders may still be alive.

Mr. Ahimbisibwe said he left the cult compound at 7:30 on the morning of the fire. He said he had no feeling that something bad was about to happen but left only because he was hungry.

On his way out, he said he ran into a cult member named Hillary, a man he described as a fervent believer, who was carrying a hammer and nails. Mr. Ahimbisibwe said he assumed later that Hillary was the one who nailed shut the windows of the church to prevent people from escaping the flames.

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