Charred corpses piled in Uganda suicide site

Reuters, March 19, 2000
By Paul Busharizi

KANUNGU, Uganda, March 19, 2000 (Reuters) - Hundreds of charred corpses littered the site in southwest Uganda of one of the world's biggest mass suicides.

They lay in the burned-out shell of a church in the green hills as rain fell on Sunday through the collapsed iron roof of the building.

The bodies included the tiny corpses of at least 11 children and probably many more.

Some of the corpses, with their hair and clothes burnt away and their features obliterated, stretched out their arms in what looked like an appeal for help while others lay face down or balanced on their elbows with their heads back.

They belong to over 200 members of a extremist Christian cult, who set themselves ablaze in the church on Friday, believing the end of the world was approaching.

Some of the dead seemed to be huddling together against the flames. One baby was curled up like a foetus on the ground.

Soldiers and policemen stood guard over the bodies as grieving relatives wept at the scene.

"Leave me alone, I want to go with them," shouted Justine Rushenya as a soldier prevented her entering the building.

The middle-aged Rushenya later told Reuters she had lost 13 family members in the mass suicide, including her mother and father and several brothers and sisters.

"I have lost all these people and I don't know how we will recover," she kept repeating.

In a nearby dormitory, chicken bones and millet bread bear witness to the last party the cult members enjoyed.

Local officials said the cultists had slaughtered a cow and ordered 70 crates of soda the night before taking their lives, believing they were on their way to heaven.

Men and women believers -- mostly former Roman Catholics -- had sold their belongings, donned white, green and black robes and brought their children into the church of the obscure "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God" in the remote little town of Kanungu.

With doors locked and windows boarded and nailed shut from breakfast time on Friday, they sang and chanted for several hours, then set the church on fire.

But locals said they would probably never know if all the cult members knew what exactly was about to happen.

"All along they had said that this (the church) is the boat of Noah," said Florence, a local villager. "This is the ark and they were told that at the time of calamity they would come here."

"They were told that at a certain time this year the world would end and so the leaders made it happen and perhaps the people there believed it had happened," she said.

A Reuters correspondent at the scene said there were at least 200 bodies within the church, but local villagers said they believed two or three times that number were living in the compound and could have all died.

A large drum which police believe contained fuel, sat at one end of the church along with the remains of several jerry cans.

"There was a big bang and then another," district administrator Kalule Sengo told Reuters at the site. "It must have been an explosion as a result of fuel."

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