An Apocalyptic Mystery

The end of the world was delayed, so a cult leader took matters into his own hands

Newsweek, April 3, 2000
By Joshua Hammer

The sect members gave no warning. In a field a few yards away from their compound, Pius Kabeireho laid bricks in the mounting heat and listened to the joyful hallelujahs wafting from the simple corrugated-iron-roofed church where the worshipers went for their morning prayers. Suddenly, just past 10 a.m. on Friday, March 17, Kabeireho heard a loud explosion, followed by the screams of children. "Mother, save me!" he says they cried. Seized by panic, he ran to the nearby police station for help. When he returned, the church was aflame, and Kabeireho gazed on the scene with terror. "I saw hundreds of charred skeletons pressed together, kneeling, with their hands clasped in prayer," he says. Amid the acrid smell of charcoal and burned flesh, Kabeireho also detected the unmistakable odor of an insecticide sold in local shops. It had been sprayed, apparently, to intensify the flames. The product's name: Doom.

The fire in Kanungu, deep in the impoverished rural highlands of southwest Uganda, was the latest horror to blight a region that has seen countless tragedies in recent years. At last count, 530 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in the fire, which at first glance appeared to have been set by members of the apocalyptic cult in an act of mass suicide. In Uganda, where the legacy of a long civil war and the rampant spread of AIDS have driven thousands to seek refuge in breakaway religious movements, news of the apparent suicides provoked widespread grief. But as more information emerged last week, there were growing doubts that the sect members had willingly set themselves ablaze. Investigators are probing whether the group's leader, a messianic former Roman Catholic schoolteacher named Joseph Kibwetere, 68, had lured his unwitting flock to their deaths, then fled with associates. The prophet may have decided to eliminate his followers after the end of the world he had long predicted failed to materialize. Last Friday, police discovered the bodies of 153 more people, some strangled, others stabbed, in a mass grave beneath a cult-owned house 35 miles from Kanungu. They had been murdered two weeks earlier. "If it is true that [the Kanungu victims] were killed and the leaders are alive, I may have to go there and join in the hunt," Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni told his countrymen.

There were few clues to be found at the site of the inferno. Five days after the fire, villagers wandered, stunned, through the sect's one-story dormitories that stood alongside the burned-out church, gawking at the inner sanctum of the strangers who had lived beside them for a decade. Grass mats, robes, school report cards and notebooks containing the scribbled messages of sect members, all sworn to a code of silence, littered the ground. A heap of red earth marked the mass grave where the victims had been dumped without ceremony. The church where they died was a pile of scorched rubble and iron roofing. Just up the hill, the stench of decomposed bodies rose from a pit beneath the leaders' house. Policemen held handkerchiefs to their faces as they removed the bodies of eight men, apparently they had defied Kibwetere, who had been bludgeoned and poisoned days before the fire. "[The cult members] were all simple people looking for a better life," said a local schoolteacher who has known Kibwetere for decades, "but this man sold them lies."

He was a charismatic deceiver. Born in southwest Uganda in 1932, Kibwetere was raised as a Roman Catholic, and taught and served as an administrator in Uganda's Catholic school system. But he broke from the church in the early 1980s after claiming that he could communicate directly with God. In 1984 Kibwetere announced that Jesus and Mary had visited him and commanded him to spread the word that the Apocalypse was coming. In the year 2000 epidemics and whirlwinds would blight the earth, he wrote in the movement's book of prophecy. The calamities would be followed by three days of darkness, during which three quarters of the world's population would die. Only those who followed Kibwetere and took refuge with him inside a church that he would build, he called it the "ark", would be assured of survival.

The preacher set up camp in Kanungu in the early 1990s, merging his sect with that of a local prophetess and former prostitute named Keledonia Mwerinde. Their followers prayed and toiled 12 hours a day in the surrounding sugar-cane and banana fields. Members handed over their property to the church and exchanged their clothes for green uniforms and white caps. Men and women were segregated, sex was forbidden and fasting two days a week was mandatory. The cultists spoke to one another only in sign language. "They explained that if someone is talking at the end of the world, he won't hear the bell summoning him to heaven," says Kabeireho, who rejected many offers to join the group. Despite the harsh conditions, and repeated allegations of cruelty to children, the sect flourished. On a 1997 government registration form, Kibwetere claimed 4,500 followers.

The approach of the millennium marked the true test of the prophet's credibility. In a notebook recovered by NEWSWEEK in the abandoned dining hall, Kibwetere excitedly announced that the dawn of "the year one" was near. "We are all waiting until December 31st," he wrote on Christmas morning. On New Year's Eve, he readied his flock for the end of the world. "We have to fill all the jerry cans with water," he wrote. "We have to be clean so that we can prepare ourselves for heaven." New Year's came and went. By mid-February, Kibwetere was again prophesying doomsday. "Buy flowers," he advised, "clean the church, and recruit other members for the special occasion." Two weeks before the inferno Kibwetere apparently had decided to take matters into his own hands. After a sect member complained that "the jerry cans are all leaking," Kibwetere responded ominously: "Don't bother with them. Soon everything will be over. We're going to make a big fire and the jerry cans will stop leaking."

Some investigators theorized that Kibwetere, depressed by the loss of his credibility, panicked. According to them, a handful of skeptical sect members apparently demanded that the leader return their property; they were murdered and tossed into the hidden pit. The killings seem to have lent new urgency to the leader's plans. Sect members sold their cattle, sugar and flour to villagers at half price. To deceive locals into believing that nothing was amiss, the sect sent out invitations to a party at the compound to be held Saturday, March 18, one day after the fire. On Thursday evening they gathered in the dining hall for a feast. The next morning they entered the church. The doors and windows were nailed shut. Then a match was struck, igniting a mixture of gasoline, sulfuric acid and insecticide. It is still unclear whether the victims knew they were about to die, or whether they believed that the "ark" would be a refuge from the imminent apocalypse. Learning the truth will be difficult, says detective Solomon Kyanmanywa, since "there were no survivors."

None except, perhaps, Kibwetere and his associates. Some believe his charred body lies among those of his followers. But a 17-year-old eyewitness has told investigators that he saw both Kibwetere and his partner Mwerinde sneaking out of the compound late Thursday night carrying small suitcases. The leaders' apparent escape has only deepened the grief of people such as Joseph Mpanimanya, 27, a taxi driver from north Uganda whose mother, father, wife and two small daughters joined the Ten Commandments of God movement last October. All perished. "I begged them not to go. I said the end of the world wasn't coming," he says, standing beside the mass grave where they lie buried. "They called me 'Satan' and said I didn't know what I was talking about." Police are now searching for more victims on the cult's properties scattered across Uganda. Until they finish their grim task, it will be impossible to gauge the full consequences of a madman's fatal delusions.

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