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New details emerge on Kibwetere death

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The researchers sit inside the office premises where the cult leaders met. Photos/Courtesy

Two separate bodies of research by researchers from Makerere University indicate that Joseph Kibwetere died a couple of years before nearly 1,000 people belonging to a doomsday cult died in an inferno on March 17, 2000.

The fate of Kibwetere, one of the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, has been the subject of interest for many people including scholars. Now, a longitudinal study by two of the country’s most eminent psychiatrists indicates that Kibwetere—who had a history of grappling with mental health issues—died in 1998 or thereabouts likely from diabetes. The psychiatrists, professors Segane Musisi and Eugune Kinyanda, are in the process of documenting the findings of their research in a book.

“He tried politics. There is a history that he had a mental illness. He had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and he was also struggling... He joined this very extreme sect of the faith in search of solutions. Otherwise they say he was a very quiet man, humble and prayerful,” Prof Kinyanda, a psychiatrist at the Department of Psychiatry at Makerere University, said of Kibwetere.

Kibwetere’s quiet efficiency was augmented by the skill set of other leaders of the doomsday cult that included: Rev Fr, Dominic Kataribabo, Rev Sr Credonia Mwerinde, Rev Fr Joseph Kasapurali, Rev John Kamagara, and Rev Sr Ursula Komuhangi. Prof Kinyanda is able to account for only three of these leaders.

“[Kibwetere’s] wife told us at one point he had been in a bus supported by two cult members. He was very physically weak and he was being moved between camps,” Prof Kinyanda told NMG Uganda’s Panorama.

Kibwetere’s fate
At the time the doomsday cult reckoned that the world would come to an end at the turn of the second millennium.
“They used to have many camps and in these camps, they used to move church members at night and this was one of the methods of disorienting the members. So we were told he was moving from one camp to another,” Prof Kinyanda said of the doomsday cult. 
The Makerere researchers believe the death of Kibwetere was telling because “he was a kind of moderating influence over [Mwerinde and Fr Kataribabo].”

“With his exit,” Prof Kinyanda noted, “the church took on a more radical and destructive streak that eventually led to the death of the members.”
The account of Kibwetere’s death a couple of years before the church massacre is corroborated by Jacob Katumusiime. His doctoral thesis titled Beyond Religio-Cultural Violence: A Historico-Political  Re-contextualisation of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, among others, looked at the 2000 Kanungu massacre. Anecdotal evidence moved Dr Katumusiime to place Kibwetere’s death on July 26 1999 as per an interview with a source who used to transport cult members in her pick-up truck.

“They called her to the Kanungu camp and told her Kibwetere was sick and they needed to take him to a hospital in Bushenyi,” he told Panorama, adding, “She says they did not reach the hospital: ‘We only reached on the way. It was dark. Some men were waiting for us, they removed him from the back of the pick-up truck. I never saw him again.’”
Dr Katumusiime’s source recalled that on the night they put Kibwetere at the back of her pick-up truck. 

“He was wrapped in a blanket…he was motionless. During the journey to Bushenyi, they stopped frequently to pray over Kibwetere, but did not give Kibwetere anything to drink, which led her to believe that Kibwetere was already dead,” Dr Katumusiime disclosed. 
Citing a written confession by Theresa Kibwetere that claimed her husband was buried at Father Kataribabo’s home in Bunyaruguru, Dr Katumusiime is further persuaded by accounts from family members who claimed that the last funeral rites were performed and an heir to Kibwetere was installed.

Fate of the others
Officially, the six cult leaders, Kibwetere inclusive, are still at large. Prof Kinyanda, however, reckons Fr Kataribabo and Credonia Mwerinde died in the inferno.
“We one time had a workshop and we had people from the police who said that in the inferno there was someone who had a priest’s dog collar. They think that was [Fr Kataribabo]. It was not clear whether Mwerinde died in that inferno but all likelihood was that she probably died in that inferno,” he told Panorama.
Mwerinde’s nephew Santonino Kananura posits an alternative account concerning his aunt’s whereabouts.

“It is said that morning a car picked her up and took her to [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo. We believe she survived because she kept the land title with the police and it is now in the custody of the police awaiting her return,” he offered.

One of the researchers tours the office premises at Nyabugoto. 

Both Prof Kinyanda and Prof Musisi visited multiple mass grave sites and conducted key informant interviews with Kibwetere’s wife. They also conducted psychological autopsies on the deceased which involved interviewing neighbours, family members about their family members and neighbours who had died at the hands of the cult.

“A psychological autopsy leads you to know, was this individual mentally fine before they died or did they have a disorder, maybe mania or depression. And you do it through relatives,” Prof Musisi, the former chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Makerere University, who led the team of researchers, said of the autopsies carried out on 105 deceased victims of the cult.

He further told Panorama thus: “And you do it through relatives. Could he have had a physical disease including HIV/Aids? Now many of these things I am saying, there was evidence to point to the fact that many of these people had mental health problems or had physical problems or had been traumatised in their lives. Many of the victims were refugees and reported to have had HIV/Aids or psychiatric disorders.”

The Vulnerable 
Women were disproportionately affected by the indoctrination, with them making up 58 percent of the cult members. The cult also preyed on children aged under 19 years. These constituted 39 percent of the cult’s population.
“[Mwerinde] used to invite us her kinsmen to parties at the church and we were eating and drinking, but we could also see children looking at us through the windows and they were begging for food from us and they obviously were suffering. So we drank and ate but we didn’t share her beliefs,” Kananura said of her aunt.

Denis Buhunga, a 61-year-old resident of Mugandu in Rubaya sub-county, in Kabale District, who lost a wife and four children in the inferno, including twins who were months old, spoke to Panorama. He recalled that a chance meeting with his wife’s schoolmate who was a disciple of Kibwetere in Kabale led to his wife abandoning her home with her four children.  

“My wife went to Kanungu in January 2000 and spent a weekend there with the children then returned to ask that we get married formally because she wanted to return to Kanungu and not live in sin,” he said, adding, “I told her that given the years we had spent together there was no way I wouldn’t marry her but she had abandoned our home and she left for Kanungu.”

Buhungu’s in-laws intervened when they realised his wife had abandoned her marriage like four other female relatives who had similarly converted to Kibwetere’s cult and abandoned their homes.
“My in-laws went after their kin and demanded to know why they were abandoning their homes over KIbwetere’s doctrine. They said they were saved and their husbands were yet sinners and swore allegiance to Kibwetere. My wife owned a forest which she sold and used the money to travel to Kanungu,” he said.
Kibwetere led the cult together with Fr Kataribabo, a US-educated theologian who is believed to have been scarred after suffering racism abroad. Prof Kinyanda said “the cult had a psychologically controlling environment.”

“In the past we used to think that once the brain is formed around adolescence it is fixed. We are now realising the brain is plastic,” he said of what occasioned the indoctrination.
Doomsday was prophesied for December 31, 1999. However, when this didn’t happen, it sowed doubt and confusion among the rank and file of the cult. This prompted the cult leaders to develop the final solution that climaxed on March 17, 2000, in a massacre.

Twenty-three percent of the interview sources that informed the psychological autopsies of the 105 deceased victims were neighbours of the deceased. Sixty-two percent of the deceased had spent between one to four years in the cult, three percent had HIV/Aids. Twelve percent of the deceased victims were 
school pupils, and 7.6 percent were pre-schoolers. The majority were peasants, with 30 percent of the deceased victims recruited by the cult leader and 47 percent by their mother. 

  “We missed an opportunity as a country to actually do profound research to see what happened to Kibwetere, to Credonia Mwerin de and to Fr Kataribabo… There are things we did not do which we should have done to know exactly what happened,” Prof Musisi disclosed, adding, “For example I would have loved to do psychological autopsies on some of the people who died. I would have liked to do DNA tests on those dead bodies to say that this dead body belonged to 

so and so. We could have done pathology tests to see if they were poisoned and what poisons were used in these mass deaths. We didn’t do that. I think we hurried to bury.”
   Reflecting on the unexpected findings of his study into the Kanungu cult, Prof Segane is of the view that surprisingly, ‘people were so easily converted even when they saw an obvious impossibility. And also the lack of government control to protect people from evangelization missions that target the vulnerable. 

And also the lack of investigative capacity to find out what happened, how can we prevent it from happening in the future. The truth is we never had closure from Kanungu.”

*Watch this story from 9.30pm on NTV Weekend Edition tomorrow.