Why cult murders went undetected

News 24, April 7, 2000
By Katy Salmon

Nairobi - "How could it have happened?" This is the question everyone is asking as the death toll continues to mount in one of the deadliest cult tragedies of modern times.

Over 1 000 members of the doomsday cult, The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, are now thought to have been murdered.

Originally treated as a mass suicide when 530 followers burned to death in a sealed church in Kanungu on 17 March, the police have now uncovered a systematic policy of murder stretching back over several months.

The leaders started apparently killing their followers after a prediction that the world would end at the end of the millennium failed to materialise.

"This is systematic," said police spokesperson Asuman Mugenyi. "Once, they were asked 'who among you doesn't believe the world is going to end?' They were told to write down their names [if they did not believe]. We strongly suspect these people have been killed here and at other sites.

"It looks as if the people were killed at different times but we still don't know if they were killed in groups or singly," he said.

On 24 March, two mass graves containing 153 bodies were found at a cult compound in Kalingo, 45 kilometres to the west of Kanungu. Some had been dead for more than four months.

Days later, 155 bodies were discovered under a newly-cemented floor in the house of cult leader "Father" Dominic Kataribabo in Rugazi, 80 kilometres north of Kanungu.

Most of the victims were women and children, many with stab wounds or ropes around their necks. Others were poisoned.

Kataribabo's house stands in the middle of a busy village, overlooking a school. How can local people not have realised what was going on?

One neighbour, Kensi Ntuaydubale, at another site in the village of Rushojwa - where the bodies of 80 people, all but three of whom were women and children, were unearthed - said: "Groups used to come from different areas and after some days they'd vanish."

Ntuaydubale claims that it was general knowledge within the village that "many people" had died. The owner of the cult's hilltop compound, Joseph Nyamurinda, disappeared with 17 family members three days before the Kanungu fire.

It appears that others were not so astute. In Kanungu, the inferno was planned well in advance but locals failed to pick up the clues. "All the signs of a cult that was going to explode into mass suicide were there," says Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan sociologist.

A week before the fire, sect members started selling off property - cattle, goats and motorbikes - at throw away prices, saying that they were going to heaven. Cult believers who ran shops sold off all their merchandise and closed their businesses. A kilo of sugar went at Ush500 instead of the usual Ush1 200.

The cult leaders bought four jerrycans of fuel, saying they were planning to buy a generator. They even celebrated with a "last supper" at which they roasted three bulls and drank 70 crates of soda.

The evening before the fire, "Kaganga", a former burly soldier who locals suspect was used to carry out the secret murders, drove the cult's Toyota to the police station to deposit the title deeds to the land for safe-keeping.

He explained in mutters and sign language that trouble was brewing but the police did nothing. The vehicle is still missing.

Kanungu's location gives a hint as to why the cult was able to grow without disturbance. Set in lush green hills far from any major town, it is a place where everybody largely minded their own business.

Locals had dismissed the cult's followers, most of whom were strangers from outside the area, as eccentrics.

It is in the nature of cults to be inward-looking and disciplined. Members, who wore green and black uniforms, were not allowed to speak - for fear of blocking out the word of God. They only communicated through gestures, prayer and songs. Men and women slept in separate dormitories and sex was forbidden. They were also encouraged to hand over their property to the cult's leaders.

Henry Birungi, a taxi driver in Kanungu, remembers: "They gave us good business while it lasted but they were queer. I could carry 30 of them in a day but they would not utter a single word throughout the entire length of the journey. I doubt if they would have reacted even if I had slapped them."

The Ugandan government has come under fire for ignoring several warning signs. President Museveni, who has launched a commission of enquiry, admitted that there were reports about the "funny behaviour" of the cult as far back as 1994.

"Some intelligence officers filed reports saying that this is a dangerous group but at some level it was not followed up, it was just ignored," he said. After the first report, a team of investigators was sent but they found no problems.

Gorretti Mitima, who lost 18 relatives in the inferno, was given the cold shoulder when she tried to get the Uganda Human Rights Commission, police, Inspector General of Government and the Administrator General to investigate the cult after her 78-year- old mother had died under mysterious circumstances in the Kanungu camp.

On 6 April, police issued arrest warrants for six top leaders of the cult who they believe are on the run. The six are charged with 10 counts of murder and face death by hanging if arrested and convicted.

However, it is not even known if they survived the Kanungu fire. Unconfirmed reports say Kibwetere was seen leaving the church compound before the fire broke out.

Reverend Amooti Mutazindwa, assistant district commissioner, has been arrested for allegedly suppressing an intelligence report that the cult posed a security threat. He is believed to be a member of the cult.

On 31 March, the police arrested a second person, Joseph Ssemande, alias "The Bishop". Some members of his family were followers.

Charles Onyango-Obbo, editor of The Monitor, believes the government was unwilling to crack down on alternative churches and cults because "cult leaders have friends in high places".

According to New Vision, Kibwetere regularly invited politicians and high-ranking local officials to parties where he lavished them with gifts.

Critics say Uganda cannot plead a lack of resources - Africa's secret police organisations can be notoriously effective when it comes to tracking down potential trouble-makers.

"Agencies like the Internal Security Organisation operate all over the country and should have picked up the signs quite easily. Could it be because our intelligence operatives are too busy drinking and trailing real or imaginary political opponents of the government?" asks Onyango-Obbo.

"The way dangerous persons are caught in Uganda tends to be by setting up a road block or through a police notice offering a handsome prize.

"The problem is that the spread of a dangerous religion cannot be arrested and handcuffed. Therefore, we might never know just what happened at Kanungu," he says.

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