Uganda Fire Creates Nightmares

Associated Press, July 14, 2000
By Henry Wasswa

KANUNGU, Uganda (AP) - Wilson Begamanya has had nightmares since his 70-year-old father was called to pray and ended up in an inferno set by leaders of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

``I have been going through dreams of death since that day. My father and I lived alone. The cult leader sent someone to fetch him for prayers. I was also invited, but I refused. Moments later, I heard a terrible blast and then saw flames,'' the brickmaker said.

His mud and wattle house stands alone, separated by a gully from the cult's former compound and makeshift church in this village 217 miles from the capital, Kampala.

``My father's remains are among the ashes buried in the mass grave there,'' the 35-year-old Begamanya said, pointing to a mound of earth where a bulldozer interred what police say were the remains of 330 victims of the March 17 fire in Kanungu.

Spikes of grass protrude from the 15 wood and stone buildings inside the deserted compound founded by the cult leaders when they broke with the Roman Catholic Church.

The windows and doors of the hall where the faithful perished had been nailed shut. Today, lizards scramble over the jumble of twisted, rusting corrugated iron roofing sheets that collapsed inward.

In Kampala, police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said this week the number of deaths linked to the cult had been revised downward to 778 from 978 because 330 people - not 530 as had been reported - died in Kanungu.

The bodies of 448 other victims were found buried in cellars or in the yards of compounds belonging to or rented by cult leaders in other villages and outside Kampala.

Mugenyi said police could not exhume all the bodies and have suspended their search. But he said pathologists were still examining victims' remains.

Investigators found traces of gasoline in the ruins of the Kanungu chapel and believe the loud noise people heard was from containers of gasoline catching fire.

And Mugenyi said police believe cult leader Joseph Kibwetere might have been murdered by two of his deputies, Dominic Kataribabo and Credonia Mwerinda, who are believed to be on the run.

``He might have been murdered by Mwerinde and Kataribaabo before the fire. We cannot tell the exact reason, but there might have been some disagreement,'' Mugenyi said.

This week, the state prosecutor requested an extension to Aug. 14 of the arrest warrant for Kibwetere and six other cult leaders.

The cult members, who had sold all their belongings in hopes of salvation and in the belief the world would end Dec. 31, 1999, were allowed to communicate only in signs, had one meal a day, worked like slaves on the cult's farm, could not have sexual relations and prayed constantly, according to former members.

``If I hear any kind of bang now like from a drum, it reminds me of that explosion. It still rings in my head,'' said Ben Mpagizi, a 15-year-old who said he lost 10 relatives in the fire.

``My elder brother died in the fire. He used to go there frequently for prayers. When the fire broke out, people were singing,'' said Amosi Mugisha. ``We ran to the scene, but up to now we do not know how it started.''

``I could not identify my brother's remains from the other bodies because most were already ashes. I and many others who lost relatives will live with this nightmare throughout our lives.''

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