Uganda Piecing Together Puzzle of Enigmatic Sect

Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2000
By Ann M. Simmons

KANUNGU, Uganda--They removed their followers from the influences of home and family. They kept their flock hungry and silent, and they hoodwinked or bribed local authorities.

An intricate system of controls allowed leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God to orchestrate--and seemingly get away with--the slayings of hundreds of followers.

At least 530 sect members were boarded up in a building last month and burned alive at the cult's headquarters in this remote corner of southwestern Uganda. The blaze, initially regarded as a mass suicide, turned out to be the fiery climax of a killing rampage that investigators believe was intended to fulfill an apocalyptic agenda. Nearly 400 other sect members had been killed in previous weeks or months and dumped in mass graves at several other cult compounds.

A month after the grisly discovery of the mass graves, many unanswered questions remain about the cult, including precisely when and how the killings occurred, who carried them out, the identities of most of the victims and the fate of the leaders. Although a massive manhunt has been launched and international arrest warrants issued, police have little proof that the cult leaders are still alive. Overwhelmed and ill-equipped investigators are piecing together evidence from the scant observations of neighbors, accounts from former cult members and tales from fearful rural communities.

Still, from that sketchy information, a picture is emerging of how the cult leaders were able to avoid suspicions of family members and neighbors as they engaged in their killing, and how they prevented authorities from cracking down on them.

Normally, relatively few police patrol this rural area, and officials who should have been keeping an eye on the cult either failed to do so or were bribed.

Instead of the southwest, Ugandan security forces focus on the high-risk west and north of the country, where insurgencies are common.

"We were taken off guard," said police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi.

Investigators also suspect that the deputy resident district commissioner blocked moves to penetrate the group despite reports of child kidnapping and possible rebel infiltration--either because he had been bribed or because he may have been a cult member. Mugenyi said the official--who since has been arrested--was seen having lunch with the cult's leaders the day before the March 17 inferno.

Cult Leaders Wanted: Dead or Alive

Authorities are seeking to arrest the head of the local office of the Criminal Investigation Division on charges of "culpable negligence." Two months before the fire, he was ordered to investigate the group, and he gave it a clean bill of health.

International arrest warrants have been issued for six of the cult's leaders, including the suspected masterminds: Joseph Kibwetere, 68, a failed politician and self-styled bishop; Keredonia Mwerinde, 48, a former prostitute believed to be the de facto head of the cult; and Dominic Kataribabo, 63, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest who once studied in the Los Angeles area.

"We are hunting for these people," Mugenyi said. "We want them dead or alive."

Investigators and community leaders believe that there may have been as many as 5,000 cult members and that some of them may be sheltering the leaders. Only a few people have responded to police appeals and reported the disappearance of relatives, making it difficult to determine how many more members there might be.

But official failure alone cannot be blamed for the cult's success at deceiving a community.

Members, predominantly poor former Catholics, were sworn to silence--unable to utter a single word except during prayer.

"This rule was ruining people," said Father Paul Ikazire, a priest who was one of the cult's leaders for three years before returning to the Catholic Church. "I think they did this so nobody could warn if there was anything wrong."

Contact and conversations with outsiders--even relatives--were forbidden. Visitors to the cult's compounds were met by a designated individual and were kept away from cult members.

"Their argument was they did not need to meet with sinners, because sinners did not have to know what was going on on their compound," said one community leader, a close acquaintance of Kataribabo, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sect members often were moved to camps outside their home region, where they were less likely to be approached and questioned by outsiders. If family members did inquire about their kin, they were told that the relatives had been sent away for training or a special mission, they said.

The Rev. George Tibamwenda, a local Anglican priest, recalled that many of the people he saw toiling on the cult's bountiful farms were not from the area.

Investigators and residents suspect that dissenters in the group were killed at one camp and their bodies transferred to another to be buried so that the corpses would not arouse suspicion among other members.

Local religious leaders also believe that cult leaders explained the burial of fellow members in mass graves without the presence of relatives by saying that only members of the sect were worthy to attend the funerals. The cult members probably also were told that if the deceased were laid to rest in the same grave, they most certainly would reach heaven together.

Peter Ahimbisibwe, 17, who narrowly escaped dying in the Kanungu inferno, had joined the sect 10 days earlier at the urging of his mother, a longtime member. He recalled that while newcomers were fed well on meat, rice and millet, long-term cult members ate mostly beans. Many of the children were unhappy because they weren't getting enough to eat, he said.

Ahimbisibwe, who sneaked out of the compound and ran home to find food just hours before the blaze, said the leaders' meals were cooked in a different kitchen than that of regular members. Everyone rose at dawn. Prayers were recited morning, noon and night. While the children struggled to play in silence, the adults labored in the fields. Bedtime came at 10 p.m.

At the cult's compound in the village of Rugazi, where 155 corpses were unearthed from Kataribabo's house and garden, the victims showed signs of having been strangled, clubbed or hacked to death. People who knew the former priest doubt that he acted alone.

"I'm sure he was persuaded and influenced by the other leaders in the sect," said Arsen Oworyanawe, Kataribabo's brother, who lived near the compound. "It wasn't like him to do something like that. I doubt my brother killed those people. He was a good man."

Neighbors suspect that the bodies found at Kataribabo's home were transported there for burial at night. They say they heard the rumbling of the sect's Toyota pickup truck most nights. It seemed to come and go more frequently after the beginning of the year.

Oworyanawe said that he had an excellent relationship with his brother but that even he was not allowed onto the compound. Kataribabo had told him that a reed fence around his property was erected simply to keep his property safe, Oworyanawe said.

Not even George Byontura, 18, who worked for Kataribabo for three years, suspected that scores of rotting corpses lay under the soil he raked. He was never allowed inside his boss' house.

"I used to see people come," said Byontura, who has spent recent days spraying the putrid compound with disinfectant. "[Kataribabo] said they had come for a course, for retraining."

On March 9, Byontura and others watched as several members burned their belongings, including Bibles, clothing and plastic water containers, before setting off in the Toyota truck to an undisclosed location.

On March 12, Kataribabo told Byontura and others at a farewell party that he was going to the neighboring town of Rukingiri for a course and that he would return in a month. However, he told his brother that he was traveling to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, but would soon be back.

Relatives were baffled because the former priest already had sold his house to a nephew and burned all his belongings, ignoring requests to leave them to his family and friends.

In Kanungu, neighbors living near one of the cult's farms said they noticed a decrease in the number of people working in the fields in the weeks preceding the inferno. Tibamwenda, the Anglican priest, said queries about the whereabouts of sect members were met with silence or an explanation that they were spreading their doctrine elsewhere.

The sect's registration in 1989 as a nongovernmental organization helped convince people that it was legitimate. Poor and illiterate villagers, desperate to find solace, were eager to join, especially since many local priests were involved. Kataribabo, for example, was respected as an honest and intelligent man.

However, children were barred from going to school. Spouses were forbidden to have intimate relations. Members were persuaded to sell their property and give the proceeds to the cult leaders. They were told that the money would be used to enable leaders to travel to America to buy a modern Noah's Ark that would save them from God's wrath when Judgment Day arrived.

Promise of Party Attracted Teen

Sadres Kyoheirwe's son Bernard Nahurira, 18, who she suspects died in the inferno, had given the cult the $65 he had earned selling the tomatoes, maize and pineapples he grew. He became discontent and left the cult, but after the beginning of the year, a female member began visiting him, and on March 10 she persuaded him to rejoin.

"On the day he left, he told me they were going to have a very big party and he would go to attend," Kyoheirwe said. "He said Kibwetere, the bishop, would be there and would give them their money back."

Evas Jonas Tumushabe's husband, Esdor Byamugisha, a member of the cult since 1997, sold four acres of land, a cow and some goats and gave the money to the cult. He even ripped the aluminum sheeting off the roof of the family shack to sell it. Tumushabe appealed to local officials, who put her husband in jail for a couple of days and ordered him to re-roof the house and not sell any more family belongings.

In November, Byamugisha came home and tried one last time to persuade his wife to bring their six children and join him at the camp. She refused. But Byamugisha took their 11-year-old daughter by force.

"He told us that we should go with him because the world was coming to an end," said Byamugisha's son Francis, 18. "He said [the leaders] had shown him a book with a message from God, and they said they would go to heaven."

As investigators continue their search for the sect's leaders across the border in Congo, relatives of cult members said they won't rest until the perpetrators are caught.

"I am very, very angry at them," Kyoheirwe said. "They must be killed as they killed others."

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