In wake of Uganda cult deaths, survivors are also victims

CNN News, April 4, 2000

RUGAZI, Uganda (AP) -- For days, the stench of rotting human flesh drifted across the playground as police pulled the bodies of 155 sect members from a house on a hill overlooking the town's school.

While decomposed corpses were hauled from the earth and laid out for a pathologist, curious schoolchildren stood and watched in disbelief. To headmaster Frank Rwabambari, the stunned students at his school are themselves victims of the deadliest cult killings in modern history. Uganda, though, can offer the horrified survivors little help.

"They must have been affected one way or the other. Definitely, some are having nightmares," Rwabambari said of the students, who range from 5 to 18 years old. "But we have no facilities" for counseling.

Villages in southwestern Uganda have yielded the bodies of 924 victims of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

Of those victims, 530 burned alive in a church fire on March 17, revealing the doomsday sect's apocalyptic agenda to the world and starting a search that would yield mass graves at three other sites.

Authorities believe the failure of the world to end Dec. 31 led sect members to demand belongings they had surrendered to join the cult, and the challenge led to retaliation by sect leaders.

The dead in Rugazi were found stuffed into secret hiding places under the floor of a house owned by a sect leader and buried in a small field behind the structure.

"People are shattered, really shattered," said James Walugembe, the Health Ministry's chief for mental health, who was working Monday to put together a crisis team for survivors.

"Something like this has never happened before. We have had war and people killed in combat and we could predict something like that, but this has never happened."

Uganda, largely rural and poor, has no crisis counselors to rush to schools, workplaces and churches. The nearest psychiatric center to any of the villages is Mbarara, a drive of several hours' away on steep, winding roads that often disintegrate into dirt tracks.

"People need counseling badly, but there is nobody to help them in these areas," said Maureen Kahima, a counselor at Mbarara University psychiatric department, whose experts will form part of the crisis team. Without help, "something may go wrong," Kahima said, warning of psychotic episodes and post-traumatic disorders.

In general, Ugandans tend to hide their grief, said James Kayizzi, a doctor at Rugazi's health center.

In the cult killings, the stigma of association with any member of the Ten Commandments sect means that acquaintances and family members may hold on to their grief that much more tightly.

"People do not want to come out openly because they fear the police and do not want to be identified with the cult ... they are masking their emotion," Kayizzi said.

The grieving in southwestern Uganda is for family members, neighbors, and classmates. One of the top students at the Rugazi school died in the church fire.

"He was a wonderful boy, but there was nothing we could do when his mother took him," Rwabambari said of 17-year-old Geofrey Kyarimpa. Handsome, well-behaved and friendly, Kyarimpa was the assistant head boy at the school -- a certified school role model, in British-borrowed school terms.

His mother had turned to the Ten Commandments' sect in exasperation at government hospitals' inability to cure the asthma of one of her sons. By December, she had forced Kyarimpa and his three younger brothers from the school.

Last week, Kyarimpa's 15-year-old cousin Lydia Turmamureb was among the blue and white uniformed classmates looking on as searchers scraped bodies from the ground near the schoolyard.

"The smell was terrible, and we saw the bodies," Lydia said. "Some people had stomachaches. Certain people also had nightmares. We are so sad."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.