In a bucolic Ugandan village: death, and worries of more bodies

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The Independent Online

The smell of rotting corpses hangs heavily over one corner of this tiny village perched on a lush green hillside, where a mound of dirt is the only memorial to 153 members of a doomsday Christian sect buried in a mass grave.

The smell of rotting corpses hangs heavily over one corner of this tiny village perched on a lush green hillside, where a mound of dirt is the only memorial to 153 members of a doomsday Christian sect buried in a mass grave.

The discovery the bodies, which came nearly a week after more than 300 other members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments were burned alive, has Ugandan authorities fearing that more corpses have yet to be discovered across the East African nation, officials said Saturday.

Police said some of those buried in the mass grave appeared to have been strangled or hacked to death. It is still not known if the sect's leaders were among the dead, but police said if they were alive they expected they had left Uganda.

"We think wherever there was a sect branch, there could be more graves," said Jim Muhwezi, the representative to parliament from the local Rujumbura constituency and a former head of Uganda's department of internal security. He spoke while walking around the charred remains of the sect's six-building compound.

Minister of Internal Affairs Edward Rugumayo said in the capital, Kampala, that police had been mobilized across the country to search buildings and land belonging to the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.

On Wednesday, villagers discovered three mass graves, which were dug into the dirt floors of two small rooms of the compound's dormitory in Buhunga.

On Friday, police exhumed the bodies, examined them, and then reburied them a single grave.

Henry Ndyambahika, a local council member, said that the bodies had been buried over a span of months - some bodies four months ago, some six weeks ago and some much more recently.

"Some had been bludgeoned, some had pieces of rope around their necks," he said.

Buhunga is 20 miles from the sect compound where at least 330 members died in a fire 17 March in a makeshift church. The exact number of dead there remains unclear, as many of the corpses were reduced to ashes.

That fire took place in Kanungu, 215 miles southwest of Kampala. All the deaths are now being treated as murders. Police had at first thought the adult victims in the church inferno were willing participants, and considered only the 78 children who died there as murder victims.

But after the second discovery, police began treating all the deaths as homicides.

Ndyambahika said the sect members in Buhunga sold all their property a week before the Kanungu inferno, then went to Kanungu. A few hours after the people there burned to death, some of the sect members returned, burning down their own compound.

Since no one remained, authorities said they believed that someone responsible fled the area.

Uganda's police force, which is ill-trained and desperately ill-financed, has been overwhelmed with the investigation as the death toll has risen.

Police officials said the bodies were reburied so quickly because they had no supplies to embalm them and there was nowhere to store them.

The bucolic village of Buhunga is set into the mountains of southwestern Uganda, bordered by a banana grove. On Saturday, evangelical Christian literature was strewn throughout the wreckage of the cult compound.

Muhwezi said he had no clue that movement members were planning anything that might cause concern.

"They were friendly people. They paid their taxes on time ... there were no problems," he said.

Neighbours said they thought of the movement members as simply very religious people.

"They were believers," said Edvina Kweramba, 22. "They believed in one God. They knew how to pray."

Speaking from Kampala, police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said police had found two registers with the names of 519 members of the sect. He said the list would be published in local newspapers, along with an additional 219 names gathered from witnesses, so relatives could contact the authorities informing them who was dead or alive.

Various reports put sect membership anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 in nine districts in Uganda, a country of 21 million. It was legally registered as a non-governmental organization.

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