Cult Members Chased Deadly Dream

The Associated Press, April 8, 2000
By Craig Nelson And Tim Sullivan

KANUNGU, Uganda (AP) - They came to this quiet village from across the luxuriant green hills of southwestern Uganda, some seeking something to believe in, others the comfort of a home and still others the shared joy of speeding to Heaven when the world stopped.

Most were Roman Catholics grown dissatisfied with their church or simply drawn to the movement by ties of blood. But all became dupes of swindlers who pried loose their possessions with assurances of a place in Paradise, authorities say.

The promise of happiness proved deadly in the hands of what Uganda's vice president called "diabolic, malevolent criminals masquerading as holy and religious people."

For at least 924 cult followers burned, choked or stabbed to death, it was all just a counterfeit dream.

Polito Bagambirebyo, 43, knew he was on the path of righteousness - and success.

His mother tried to persuade him to abandon his new creed, as did other relatives who came to his family's neat concrete house outside the village of Rugazi. They watched him lose his property, divorce his wife and withdraw from the people with whom he'd grown up.

But there was no shaking Bagambirebyo. He had found the answer - fasting, sexual abstinence and near-total silence would earn him a spot next to God when the world ended. And he knew that was coming soon.

"My son said he was right," said Terezia Kemijumbi, a woman withered by age and grief. "He said his religion was the only way to heaven."

Bagambirebyo's journey to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God started with an ardent belief in the Roman Catholic Church and the need for a job.

Forced by his father's death to drop out of primary school, Bagambirebyo struggled to find work. What he eventually found was a calling, becoming a Roman Catholic catechist.

In 1989, Bagambirebyo's boss, the soon-to-be excommunicated Rev. Dominic Kataribabo, joined a Catholic splinter group founded by a banana-beer seller named Credonia Mwerinde. Bagambirebyo followed.

As the movement required, Bagambirebyo sold his possessions and gave the money to sect leaders, left his wife and sent their children to the movement's compounds.

The catechist became a cult proselytizer, a loyal lieutenant to the group's leaders. For the poorly educated man, it was success far beyond his dreams.

When Dec. 31, 1999, passed without the world ending, rumblings began. Some members demanded their possessions back, police say. Soon, believers began dying. After the climactic March 17 fire in a chapel jammed with followers, police found more than 150 bodies buried beneath the ex-priest's house and in the yard.

Bagambirebyo never joined the malcontents. During a visit home just before the fire, his family pleaded with him to leave the sect.

"He refused," said Ezra Mpamize, a member of the clan. "He knew the world would end."

He did, however, promise to quit if the world wasn't destroyed by the new predicted end-time - 2001.

On March 11, Bagambirebyo received a letter from Mwerinde, the movement's real power. What it said remains a mystery. What followed, though, was the end.

"They really want me back there in Kanungu," he told his mother. "They want me immediately."

Was the movement flim-flam from the beginning?

The sect began in 1989 as a Roman Catholic revival movement, born after Mwerinde - the beer seller - claimed to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The vision came just weeks after she went bankrupt, her former common-law husband said.

She found a receptive audience in a country rebuilding after decades of brutal dictatorships, relentless purges and an AIDS epidemic that was cutting a deadly swath through this East African nation.

Mwerinde's movement became yet another of the hundreds of apocalyptic churches that spring up every year in Uganda's religious ferment.

None of the sect's practices - silence, sexual abstinence, fasting, visions - was completely alien to the Roman Catholic Church. Nor, certainly, was the sect's belief in the world's end and Christ's return.

In the end, the Ugandan sect's leaders manipulated those beliefs. Was it for money? Power? They obtained some of both. But just what drove them to what police call mass murder remains uncertain.

Still, interviews with scores of present and past cult members, and relatives of victims, suggest at least some of the sect's leaders sincerely believed the Catholic church was failing, and that a tiny clique of visionaries had found the path to God.

Lydia Bagambe married into the wrong family.

Years before Mwerinde claimed the Madonna's guidance and founded the movement, Bagambe already despised her then-sister-in-law.

"She was a bad woman," she said, sitting in her mud-walled hut propped against a steep slope in Kanungu, a mile from the sect's compound.

Under Mwerinde's influence, Bagambe said, her husband beat her and then divorced her in 1980. Later, she said, Mwerinde took her five children.

It wasn't the first time Mwerinde had divided a family. A former school administrator named Joseph Kibwetere had left his job and family to join her, later becoming the movement's public face and its "bishop."

All of Bagambe's children joined the sect soon after it formed in 1989. One grew disgusted with the sect's code of silence and left. The others stayed, less because of the apocalyptic message than out of the need to survive. "The sect basically took care of them," Bagambe says.

Uganda's divorce laws, which favor men, left her powerless to help her children, even when they went hungry. When allowed to visit the children, Bagambe and her brother, Gabriel Muhire, tried to persuade them to leave. It was in vain.

There was another, more sinister reason for her children's' loyalty to the sect. "If they left, they were worried something would happen to them," Bagambe said.

The fear wasn't unfounded.

According to Bagambe, sect members in 1994 locked one of her children, Mary Kyonugisha, in a room for a week and wrapped her legs in burning banana leaves as punishment for "talkativeness." Later, to escape the sect, she moved to the capital, Kampala. In the end, she was Bagame's only child to survive.

International arrest warrants have been issued for six cult leaders, including Mwerinde and Kibwetere, whom authorities believe to have fled. If they have, there has been no sign of them.

Hundreds of believers had been killed and buried in mass graves by the time sect leaders issued a summons for remaining members to gather in Kanungu.

Whether the 530 people who filed into the chapel that Friday morning had any indication of their fate is unknown. But soon, the sound of an explosion resounded through Kanungu's hills. Within a minute, flames engulfed the tin-roofed building.

Inside were Polito Bagambirebyo and his four children, and Lydia Bagambe's children, according to their families. None survived, police said.

Gabriel Muhire ran to the burning chapel, watching helplessly as his nieces and nephews burned to death. His sister stayed in bed, too terrified to face the carnage.

Terezia Kemijumbi rushed to Kanungu when she heard about the fire.

"I couldn't even identify my son," she said.

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