Evidence Indicates Uganda Cult Held an Eerie Prelude to Fire

New York Times, March 26, 2000
By Henri E. Cauvin

RUTOMA, Uganda, March 25 -- At least some of the 153 people who were killed at a secluded cult compound in southwestern Uganda died several weeks before hundreds of followers of the doomsday cult died in a raging inferno in their church eight days ago, the police said today.

The compound, set at the end of a narrow dirt path, was set on fire just hours before the church inferno on March 17 in which at least 330 people died. The fire at the compound gutted the five small dwellings on the site and scorched much of the surrounding earth in an eerie prelude to the catastrophe that then unfolded in the village of Kanungu, where the cult, known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, made its home.

The fire here, and the discovery of the bodies of people who were apparently killed weeks or even months ago, have bolstered the growing sense among investigators that what happened in the Kanungu church was, on some level, a carefully orchestrated act by the cult's leader, Joseph Kibwetere, and some of his lieutenants.

"Unless we prove that they are dead, we want them to answer charges of murder," Assuman Mugenyi, the chief spokesman for the National Police Service, said today in a telephone interview from Kampala, the capital. Increasingly overwhelmed by their grisly discoveries, police officials said today that international help for the underequipped Ugandan police force would be welcome.

Hoping to find clues about what happened at Kanungu, investigators have been combing other sites where the cult operated.

When diggers began excavating the ditches on Friday, the toll was staggering: 153 bodies, Mr. Mugenyi said. Of the dead, 59 were children and everyone, it appeared, had been killed, he said. Some of them had been strangled and others had been slashed, he said.

Unlike the massacre at Kanungu, in which everyone died at once, the killings here appear to have occurred at the very least over a period of weeks, Mr. Mugenyi said.

The site here, set at the end of a narrow dirt path, was used by the cult for inducting new members and introducing them to its ways, a senior police investigator said today.

"It was a place for indoctrination," Terense Kinyera, the regional head of criminal investigations for the Ugandan police, said after meeting with other investigators here.

The bodies found here were examined by medical investigators and then buried en masse in a grave dug on the edge of one the buildings.

With manpower limited and rough terrain making travel to the scenes difficult, investigators have been slowed in their search for evidence.

More than a week after the Kanungu fire, investigators were only beginning today to search another of the cult's sites, in the neighboring village of Bushenyi. And investigators will never have the type of forensic evidence that could have been gleaned from examination in a laboratory. But removing the bodies would have been an enormous logistical challenge, even for a police force with far more manpower and resources.

"This is a big problem for us because our police force is not fully equipped," Mr. Mugenyi said. "If we could get some international assistance, we would welcome it. We need some experts, especially on homicide, to help reinforce our team."

Between 20 and 30 investigators are assigned to the case, he said, and "even those resources are not enough for them to do thorough work."

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