KANUNGU, Uganda, April 2, 2000 (Reuters) - A former prostitute who may have masterminded the killing of over 900 members of a Ugandan doomsday cult became a religious fanatic after she claimed to have met the Virgin Mary, her husband said on Sunday.
Along with Joseph Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet and failed politician, Gredonia Mwerinda led the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. Up to 530 cult members died when its Kanungu headquarters burned down on March 17.
Since the fire, initially thought to be a ritual mass suicide but now being treated as murder, the bodies of 395 other cult members have been pulled out of mass graves in nearby areas of southwest Uganda.
Most of the victims were women and children who appeared to have been strangled.
Police have named Gredonia as one of their principal suspects. Along with Kibwetere, she had predicted that the world would end on December 31, 1999.
Former cult members described her as a forceful and sometimes violent woman who ruled the cult with an iron fist. They said she claimed to have regular conversations with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael.
But her husband, Eric Mazima, said she was a dutiful and loving wife with little interest in religion until she claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary in August 1988.
"In the whole time I was with her she never went to church once," he said. "But because I could not see the same vision she left me."
He said he had not seen Gredonia since they separated in 1988.
"It was rubbish. There was no image of Mary. I looked for ages and saw nothing," he said.
Kibwetere founded the cult in 1989 after he claimed to have captured on tape a conversation between the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were complaining how sinful the world had become.
Gredonia joined him, part of a large, mainly female, following. Villagers said she quickly became Kibwetere's confidante and possibly even his lover.
Preaching the evil of material possessions to her followers, she quickly grew rich from them. She accumulated large farms, houses and cars and spent a lot of time flying around Africa to try to win converts, according to her uncle, Marsiali Baryeihahwenki.
Paul Ikazire, a former cult member, said she seemed to have a firm grip on the reins of power -- even beating up Kibwetere's wife on one occasion for using soap, which was banned by the cult, along with conversation, sex, cigarettes and alcohol.
"She used to bring in messages from the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael," Ikazire, who left the cult in 1994, said. "She would come in and say things like: 'The Virgin Mary wants you to bring more money,"' he said.