RUSHOJWA, Uganda, April 5, 2000 (Reuters) - Erneo Rwarinda lived a few metres from a house used by the fanatical Christian cult blamed for one of the worst mass murders in recent Ugandan history, but he knew remarkably little about them.
For years members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God -- who included one of Rwarinda's brothers -- spoke not a single word to him, communicating strictly with each other through hand-signs, written messages and prayer.
"These people were just isolated. They were not even permitted to talk," 82-year-old Rwarinda told Reuters at his rural home in southwest Uganda.
"When I saw them, they could not greet me. They were just communicating with each other through signs."
The prohibition on speech was meant to maintain discipline and prevent quarrels. But it also guarded deep secrets.
Last week, police dug 81 bodies -- almost all women and children -- from a grave behind the sect's compound in Rushojwa, bringing to almost 900 the number of followers believed to have been killed.
Neighbours say sect members spent most of their time praying, singing hymns and working in banana and cassava fields.
Although the rules of the sect were bizarre -- they were denied soap, sex and sometimes school -- local residents said they had no reason to be suspicious.
Local police say they too had little reason to suspect the sect of wrongdoing, despite warnings from a local parish.
A local parish councillor filed a report last year raising concerns over strangers and unaccompanied children in the area, but officials said they could not act because the sect was a registered charity.
"These people were very good taxpayers," said James Byaruhanga, a local police official.
"They had permission to operate from the authorities, so we had no reason to stop them."
The cult apparently had little success in converting people in the area and seemed to draw most of its members from other regions of Uganda, residents said.
But the sect, whose leaders purported to be visionaries with direct links to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, had a powerful influence on those it did convert -- driving wedges even through the deepest family ties.
Another of Rwarinda's sons, 32-year-old businessman Peter Muhumuza, had a similar story to tell.
"I told my wife I don't want us to join this sect because we are Catholics and these people, they just pretend to be," Muhumuza told Reuters.
"But she just kept quiet and joined secretly."
After a business trip to the capital Kampala, Muhumuza returned home to find his wife and five children gone.
Neighbours said they had left with other sect members to Kanungu, where around 500 charred bodies were found in the burnt-out remains of a church on March 17.
Sitting outside his red-mud house with blue shutters and staring blankly at a wedding ring on his finger, Muhumuza said his uncle -- who was in charge of the house used by the cult -- murdered his family.
But neither Muhumuza nor other residents could find a reason for the killings.
Police believe cult leaders, who told followers to give up their properties and possessions because the end of the world was on its way, began killing their followers after the prediction failed to come true.