Relatives Pay Respects at Uganda Cult Death Site

Reuters, March 21, 2000

KANUNGU, Uganda (Reuters) - A woman who lost 17 family members in Uganda's cult doomsday blaze joined relatives paying their last respects Tuesday to the hundreds of dead at the site of the conflagration.

A mound of red earth marked the spot where the bodies of perhaps 500 cultists were unceremoniously buried in a mass grave late Monday, while other corpses lay undisturbed in the pit latrine where they were found. Christine Kapere, who drove to this remote corner of southwest Uganda from the Rwandan capital of Kigali with her husband and young baby, said she had lost 17 relatives, including her mother and father.

Her parents had unsuccessfully tried to convince her to join the sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. "I never believed in it, I knew it was a cult," she said.

The exact death toll may never be known, but officials said more than 500 people could have been killed in last Friday's tragedy, in which cult members, expecting the world to end, boarded themselves inside a church before setting it ablaze.

Police said they were treating the case as both suicide and murder, because the bodies of at least 78 children were found among the dead.

The discovery Monday of more bodies buried in the cult's compound in the small town of Kanungu cast an even more ominous light on the episode. A fire brigade team was expected to arrive later Tuesday to pull out at least five corpses which had been dumped in a pit latrine in the compound, while detectives were also expected to determine their cause of death. The cult's members apparently believed the world was about to be destroyed for not obeying the Ten Commandments, and only those who gathered in their church would gain salvation.

Kapere said her parents had written to her saying they were "preparing to go to Heaven."

But like many other relatives, she found it hard to believe they could have willingly taken their own lives. "It was forced," she said. "They have been murdered. It was not free."

Bulldozed Into Mass Grave

Barefoot prisoners started to bury the dead Monday before a bulldozer arrived to finish the job.

As the sun set over the lush green hills, the bulldozer demolished the mud and cement walls of the ruined church, then scooped up the remaining bodies and threw them with the rubble into a hole in the ground. "It is a shame that they are being buried like animals," said Patrick, a Ugandan soldier as he watched the burial. "They were Christians and there were no final prayers."

The Roman Catholic church in Uganda has disowned the sect, which was led by a failed politician and several excommunicated Catholic priests and nuns. "No mass will be celebrated in the affected families and churches until further communication," Archbishop Paul Bakyenga of western Uganda said in a terse three-line statement to priests in the region Tuesday.

Officials said Monday they intended to close down four other centers used by the sect in southwestern Uganda, but local police commanders contacted by Reuters Tuesday said they had not yet received any instructions to move against remnants of the sect.

Whether they find anything when they do seems doubtful. Local residents said cult members had been arriving from other centers several days before the blaze.

Police say they suspect the sect's leader, 68-year-old Joseph Kibwetere, died in the fire, and say they have identified the bodies of two of his associates.

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