What you need to know:
It is more than a decade since more than 1,000 people perished in a church building in Kanungu after what is believed to have been a well-planned move by cult leaders who thought the world was coming to an end on December 31, 1999 but it never came to pass. Much as time has passed, people still feel the effect of the killings, write Perez Rumanzi & Emily Kembabazi.
Every March 17, sad memories of the 2000 cult inferno return to haunt Ms Sarah Ntegyereize. The young Ntegyereize, daughter to the then Kinkizi Diocese Bishop, Rt. Rev. John Wilson Ntengyereize, recalls when she set out to deliver a missive to the ill fated Church on the day of the inferno that claimed more than 1,000 believers most of whom were children.
The massacre site is approximately 450 kilometres from Uganda’s capital in the southwestern district of Kanungu, two-and-a-half kilometres east of Kanungu District headquarters, on a road named “Inferno.”
According to Mr Emmy Magezi, the Kanungu LC5 councillor, the road was named “Inferno” in memory of those who perished in the fire at Nyabugoto.
Apparently, the road leading to the site has over the years been abandoned and therefore the area is now hard to reach. Even a motorcycle can find it hard to get to the other end because the logged bridges have decayed and can no longer support the weight of heavy loads.
On that fateful day, Ms Ntegyereize had been sent to the church to deliver a message following an invitation to his father to a function to open the church the following day. But moments after she left the church, she saw a cloud of smoke from the site of the old church. “It was very hard for me to get onto the motorcycle,” she recalls.
“My legs were quaking. I had just left the premises, I had a single shout and fire was over the roof. I hadn’t gone back until today.” She says she did not see any of the cult leaders the day she delivered the message.
This was the lowest moment in the history of the district (then Rukungiri) and Uganda as believers of “Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments” headed by Joseph Kibwetere locked themselves up in a cult Kanungu church and set themselves ablaze. People in this area still remember what the church looked like, the cult leaders in question and the day believers perished.
The building that once served as the offices of the group is in place but without windows, iron sheets, doors and most of the walls have started to fall in. “Most of the things were stolen by unknown people because after the massacre, not all people who flocked to the place were mourners. You can’t imagine what happened because Kibwetere and his team had a lot of equipment like tailoring and knitting machines which were used to make school uniforms and sweaters for their children but I can’t tell where these machines went,” Coretta Tuheirerwe, an area resident and cult witness, sadly said.
Of course after the inferno, there was no protection of the property that stayed because most people were anguished.
“You know a public good that is not well guarded belongs to no one. I am sure this is how Kibwetere’s belongings were taken way,” she says.
The once extensive farm that Kibwetere owned has turned into bush. Pineapple and banana plantations have all vanished and turned into a grazing place for domestic animals. At Nyabugoto, the Kibwetere had a primary school, Ishaayuurirorya Maria Boarding School, Karuhinda, but it is so unfortunate that it disappeared with the owner.
As of now, one cannot tell where this school was built because the area where it was has been covered with thickets.
As we toured the area, it became clear that it was hard to also identify the mass grave where the burnt people were laid to rest, if you were new to the area. The area is just covered with grass and weeds.
Tuheireirwe says the cult site has been abandoned as it has been in hands of government ever since the incident took place. “Some time back, we received a one Alex who came claiming his grandfather’s land. He told us that he is a son of Henry Byarugaba, a brother to Caledonia Mwerinde, one of the cult leaders. He said the 20-acre land, which belonged to his grandfather Paul Kashaku was now his and should be handed over to him,” Tuheireirwe says.
When asked where he was before the inferno, he said initially, he was a member of cult for almost two months but later escaped due to harsh conditions they were facing. Among some of the practices of the cult, followers were buried alive, especially those who were ‘big headed’, killing of children, sex denial to married couples and sleeping on empty stomachs for days under the excuse of fasting was a common practice. However, Tuheireirwea says people used to fear the area because of ghosts but now they are no-longer heard during the night. “We used to hear many people singing during night hours but people came and prayed there. Since then the area stabilised and as of now people confidently pass there both day and night without fear.”
In the immediate aftermath of the inferno, investigators found bodies of at least 200 suspected victims buried in buildings the cult leaders owned at two locations in Kampala and Bushenyi. Like those who died in Kanungu, they were also buried in mass graves without being identified or handed back to relatives.
Preliminary investigations by the police at the time indicated that the killings were well planned by the cult leaders after it apparently became clear that the world was not going to come to an end at the turn of millenium. For instance on March 24, two mass graves containing 153 bodies were found at a cult compound in Kalingo, 45 km 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 km north of Kanungu.
Ms Tereza Kibwetere, the widow to Kibwetere, still lives in Kabumba Rukanga in Nyabihoko Sub-county, Kajara in Ntungamo District in an isolated environment at their home. The ageing Tereza, who was bombarded with questions from security and media, does not wish to remember anything related to the cult. “Every time it reaches this day (March17), I see people with cameras coming here. What do you want?” she asked. “I don’t talk to press men. I have nothing to tell you about my husband. He was killed even before the fire. I left the place because what I saw there was all wrong.” She is, however, defensive and even refused us to take her photograph.
In Ntungamo, it is very easy to tress who the cult affected than in Kanungu District. The victims in Kanungu were fewer and may had died before the infamous incident according to residents. Some mass graves were discovered in churches after the inferno with bodies of people killed earlier.
Mr Charles Katureebe, a resident of Nyabugoto cell in Kanungu town council, says he does not aware of anyone who died in his neigbourhood, but his memory of the fire and the people there is still eminent. “It was around 10am, I had just finished part of my work in the banana plantation and I was preparing to start on something. While I was home, I saw a fire and proceeded to the place,” Katureebe says. “I found people who had reached earlier than me eating at the church’s dining tables. I joined them before some started looting.”
According to findings in the Human Rights Report on Kanungu in 2000 , there were signs of negligence on the part of some government officials. Some foresighted leaders like Rtd RDC Yorokamu Kamacerere had warned against the registration of the cult and even briefed his successor against, the activities of the cult. However, his successor never accepted his advice and instead fraternised with the cult members and eventually helped them to register.
Even after the incident happened, the report mentions that there was still government illpreparedness in dealing with such an incident. They used prisoners with unprotected wear to exhume and rebury decomposing bodies. This was unethical, violated the rights of prisoners and exposed the state’s unpreparedness about disasters.
Eleven years on, no investigation has ever been done and as Saturday Monitor has found, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the police Criminal Investigation Directorate long closed files on any investigation.
A government appointed judicial probe never sat and the case seems closed for good. Most of the people still believe that the cult leaders in Kibwetere, Mwerinde, Fr John Kataribabo, Fr Kasapurari and others are still at large.
The report also says there was also a high possibility that Fr Kataribabo did not burn in the inferno but prepared for its execution. He had disappeared a day before the incident when the leaders (together with him) were coming from Rukungiri town at night to buy items for the festivities of the day before they died. However, there are some who believe that Kibwetere died before the fire. He was last seen in 1999 when he was seriously sick. He could have died naturally earlier than that. Some residents in Kanungu have since failed to take roasted meat after they saw charred bodies in the church.