'Burn her,' says cult leader's former lover

National Post, Thursday, April 06, 2000
By John Gradon

CHUNGA, Uganda - If Credonia Mwerinde, the charismatic ex-prostitute and cult leader, is still alive, the old man who was once proud to love her and call her his wife now wishes her nothing but death for her sins.

"I am angry that a woman I loved so much turned out to be such a terrible human being inside," Eric Mazima says in his office, a mud-covered brick building in this hamlet high in the mountains.

A beefy security guard sits imposingly at the side of the village elder and former politician.

"If she is alive she should be captured, she should be brought here and they should burn her, too. She should be burned so that she feels how she made people suffer, how she made children's children suffer," Mr. Mazima, 70, said in an interview conducted through an interpreter.

Authorities suspect that the woman he once loved is alive and on the run after the mass cult killings that claimed the lives of 1,000-plus people at Kanungu and other cult sites in Uganda's southwest.

Many more probably died, but other suspected mass gravesites remain unexplored by the police, who have suspended their searches because they have been overwhelmed by the enormity of the crime.

The old man rests on a wooden table then suddenly thumps the wood with his fist. He, too, thinks she might still be alive.

"What is needed is that people in the mainstream religions make sure no more cults should be allowed to deceive people the way she did ... getting them to follow her and her cult until they died.

"It saddens me so much. The government and mainstream religions should reply to all these cults here, fight them, not allow them to come up because unless they do fight, the cults will finish us here."

Ms. Mwerinde ran the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God cult in Kanungu along with two men, Joseph Kibwetere, who claimed to be the church's bishop, and Dominic Kataribabo, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest.

They told their huge flock the world would end at the start of 2000, that the only safe place on Earth was the cult's compound, and parted the people from their money and valuables.

It appears that when the world survived, many of the congregation demanded their money back.

And they started to die, 530 of them in the cult's blazing church at Kanungu on March 17. They were burned alive, consumed by gasoline-fuelled flames and trapped behind windows and doors bolted from the outside, police said yesterday.

Hundreds more were strangled or beaten to death at houses and compounds around southwest Uganda.

Eric Mazima does not miss the irony of the Kanungu connection -- it was there he "first started to do business" with Ms. Mwerinde in 1979. He parted company with her in 1988, when she started to claim that she was having visions of the Virgin Mary on a rock face.

"It started as business, my time with her," Mr. Mazima says. "She was my sixth woman. I still have my other five. I used to walk to her.

"She was good at business and professional. She was ambitious, social and friendly. But even then she had a really strong spirit. "She was liked by all the men because she was a prostitute. But she was liked by the women, too, because she was friendly. "Eventually I loved her very much and she loved me. She became my wife in another village, my mistress."

Mr. Mazima shakes his head: "At that time there was no sign she was a leader of people. She was very strong but not a leader."

Their relationship deepened with time. "I was proud she was my wife," he says.

But things changed when Ms. Mwerinde began to speak in the village about her visions at the rock. "She took me there to see the Virgin Mary," Mr. Mazima says. He describes a house-size rock with two caves big enough for people to crawl into on their hands and knees.

"Between the caves, there is a pillar of rock. She said she could see the Virgin standing with her back facing out to the world. She said, 'The Virgin has turned her back on people because of the terrible sins of the world.' "

"I could not see it and I told her that. I remember it was Aug. 10, 1988. On Aug. 24, I told her I was finished with her. It was directly because of her so-called vision.

"I couldn't see the Virgin, I didn't believe it was there, but others believed her and said they could see it, too. Soon they were following her. Soon, more, and then more and more."

"That's when I decided to part with her. I just thought that because she was a prostitute she was wanting other men and this was a way to get rid of me. But men and women started following her."

"That's how it all started. The other two men joined her, but I know she was the leader. I saw it happen. I saw it happening, the people following her." And soon the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a reality and built a hilltop compound on a hill overlooking Kanungu.

Inside, the growing congregation was trained in a regimen of silence. "That's how they manipulated them, how they controlled them. They couldn't talk to each other," the old man says.

"She was the leader because she was the one who took them there, they followed her, they started building. They started tearing the land. Everyone was following her." And so Mr. Mazima, the man who once loved her, now calls for her death.

Uganda does have the death penalty but it has been rarely used in recent years because there are moves in parliament to repeal it.

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