Desperately seeking a slice of heaven

Thursday October 11 2007

On March 17, 2000, 800 Ugandans lost their lives in an attempt to escape Armaggedon. They were members of a cult called ‘The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God’.

They had been told that the end of the world was nigh. When it didn’t come, they locked themselves in their church building and set themselves on fire. No one survived.
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was founded by Joseph Kibwetere, 68, a former Roman Catholic priest generally described as a ‘sensational prophet’.

Kibwetere split from the Catholic Diocese of Mbarara in the early 90’s after he claimed to have tape-recorded a conversation between Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in the late 1980’s, in which Mary supposedly said the world would be destroyed come 2000 because its people were not adhering to the Ten Commandments.


He was joined by the learned Dominic Kataribabo, a 1987 theology graduate student of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
The powerhouse of the cult’s leadership. Though, was a 48-year-old former prostitute called Credonia Mwerinde, who joined the cult as soon as she met Kibwetere. It was not long before she became his lover and right-hand person.

Mwerinde became a religious fanatic after she said she had a vision of the Virgin Mary. While she was officially only one of the cult’s ‘12 apostles’, inside the sect she was known as “The Programmer�, said Therese Kibwetere, Joseph Kibwetere estranged wife. “Whenever anything was to be done, it was Credonia,� she said.

Preaching the evil of material possessions to her followers, she quickly grew rich from them. A former cult member said she seemed to have a firm grip on the reins of power even beating up Kibwetere’s wife on one occasion for using soap, which was banned by the cult.
Another ex-member describes Cledonia as a forceful and sometimes violent woman who was said to have regular conversations with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael. She even had the cult’s chapel built on top of her father’s grave.
It wasn’t long before the cult grew to about 1, 000 members.

By the time of the deaths, it was estimated that there were 5, 000 followers countrywide. Its followers came from Bunyaruguru, Bushenyi, Rukungiri, Kabale Ntungamo, some parts of Eastern Congo and Rwanda.

Little is known about the cult’s teachings. Former cult members said they were forbidden to talk by their leaders, communicating only through gestures, prayer and songs. Sex between cult members was also barred, as was the use of soap, conversation, cigarettes and alcohol.

For a cult whose whole basis for existence was the prediction of Armageddon, it must have been quite a shock when the sun rose on January 1, 2000.
In fact, this date had already been changed once; sect leaders had earlier predicted that the world would end on December 31, 1999 but revised to December 31, 2000, when the earlier date passed without event.

Kibweteere had, in 2000, opened up a camp where those who had sold off their property in preparation for Armageddon were waiting.
In the run up to Armageddon, the cult leaders spent thousands of dollars on radio adverts seeking new recruits. The radio adverts began in early December, announcing that anyone who wanted to go to heaven should join the cult before the arrival of Armageddon. And many did. But December 31, 2000, came and went, without fire or brimstone. And so did January 1, 2000. And January 2. And January 3.

Some disappointed members started to ask for their money and property back. It must have been then that the cult leaders decided that if they couldn’t get to heaven, they would create a shortcut. The ads also continued until a week before the Kanungu church fire.

A week before the suicide cult members started arriving from other parts of Uganda in buses and trucks. “When they were leaving we tried to ask where they were going and they said they were going to pray at Kanungu,� says Nuwagaba Francis, a relative of one cult member.

According to villagers, on the Wednesday before March 17, the cult members had a ‘party’ where they feasted on three roast bulls and 70 crates of soda.
They then gathered all of their remaining material possessions, including clothing and money, and burnt them, then walked around the village, bidding everyone goodbye. Then on the Friday, the followers, mostly women and children dressed in white, green and black robes, boarded themselves inside the church in Kanungu where they chanted and sang themselves hoarse before lighting the place on fire.

Later, authorities investigating the deaths found that the windows and doors of the church had been nailed shut and the prayer mats were doused with gasoline. It is believed the congregation went up in flames when they lit their candles.
Over 800 bodies of former cult members, including more than 100 children, were later discovered by investigating authorities.

More shocking discoveries were made, prompting the police to suspect that they were actually dealing with a case of mass homicide. 153 bodies were soon found buried under a house used by the cult in the village of Buhunga.
Within the same week, the police unearthed another 155 corpses from the house and garden of one of the cult leaders, Dominic Kataribabo, in Rugazi.

The corpses showed signs of having been strangled, clubbed or hacked to death in recent weeks or months, although forensic tests suggested that poison might also have been used. Outside the ruined church in Kanungu, investigators found several other corpses. Some were buried under fresh concrete in pit latrines. “The scene is horror,� police spokesman Asuman Mugenyi told The Associated Press after visiting the site of the inferno “It is only about two or three bodies which you can say (….) are men or women. The rest of the bodies are beyond human shape.�

In the following weeks, police followed the grisly trail to several houses owned or rented by presumed cult leaders, where they found 448 more bodies buried in the gardens and stashed under concrete floors.

It later turned out that among the murdered were cult members’ relatives who had come to rescue their family members from the cult. This appears to have been carried out at most of the church’s compound. According to a former sect member, it was part of an elaborate plot to prevent members from being rescued and revealing the “diabolical deeds� taking place inside the sect.

“If a person came to the camp looking for his or her relatives, the cult leaders welcomed them, gave them a seat in the visitor’s room and a cup of tea,� said the former cult member, who defected before the church’s fiery mass murder suicide. “The tea was poisoned. Later, he or she was taken to the cult offices when helpless and thrown into a pit.�

President Yoweri Museveni then ordered a commission of inquiry to investigate reports that local administrators had ignored warnings about the doomsday cult from their own intelligence officers.

Why didn’t local intelligence officers sense the growing danger in letting such a cult grow, even though there were indications that they knew about its malevolent nature? A police officer who declined to be named said that three of the cult’s leaders were briefly detained in 1998 for enlisting others into poverty.

“They were telling people to sell their property and possessions,� said the official. “They looked to be poor and humble because they didn’t carry any belongings. They only carried the Bible.�

One arrest was subsequently made. Reverend Amooti Mutazindwa, an assistant district commissioner in southwest Uganda, was arrested for allegedly suppressing an intelligence report that suggested the cult posed a security threat. (However he was subsequently released and instituted a suit against Government for false arrest.)
Police also said at the time that they would question him for possible links to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. The police had asked Interpol to issue arrest warrants for four cult leaders they believed were on the run.

More death sites were discovered, and police were clearly overwhelmed by the scale of the murders in comparison to their own meagre resources. They eventually had to postpone efforts to find more bodies because they didn’t have enough body bags or masks and protective clothing for searchers.

“There will be no more exhumations until we have the logistics in place,� the then police spokesman Eric Naigambi said. “Now all that we are doing is building up statistics.�
Hundreds of post-mortem examinations couldn’t be carried out because there was only one Government Pathologist. The burial of the charred remains and decomposing bodies was done by convicts who were exposed to health hazards, as they were bare foot and did not have gloves to handle the rotten bodies.

The discovery of a fifth mass grave, in Kyata, near the southwestern town of Fort Portal, came as police made another arrest, their second since fire. Joseph Ssettuba Assemande, known as “The Bishop�, was arrested in the southwestern district of Rakai. It is not immediately clear whether he had an active role in the sect.

Still, investigators show no signs of being able to find the sect leaders or even of being able to confirm which, if any, survived. Some people say that Kibwetere and several assistants escaped from Kanungu by car shortly after the church there was set ablaze, while some of his family members believe that he perished in the church fire. Mwerinde’s whereabouts at the time of the fire were unknown.

Officially the investigation continues. But authorities seem to have little prospect of tracking down the alleged cult leaders. Authorities say Kataribaabo was seen last year in Rwanda, at the camp of a different cult, and then in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Mwerinde, who once ran a bar, was seen in a village in southwestern Uganda. No one has seen Kibwetere.