The horror - journey to the heart of the African apocalypse

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The Independent Online

Drive westwards for seven hours or so from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. About three-quarters of the way into your journey, the land begins to rise and fold. Savannah grass and low thorn trees give way to tall eucalyptus and flame trees, and among the ubiquitous banana plantations, tea estates begin to appear.

Drive westwards for seven hours or so from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. About three-quarters of the way into your journey, the land begins to rise and fold. Savannah grass and low thorn trees give way to tall eucalyptus and flame trees, and among the ubiquitous banana plantations, tea estates begin to appear.

At Kabale, the last big town before the Rwandan border, you leave the tar and swing right on to a dirt track which rises and falls hundreds of feet through a heart-piercingly beautiful forest reserve. Monkeys scramble out of the way; huge birds swoop into the valleys. Here and there trees with trunks as thick as cars have fallen across the road, and the mid-sections have been sawn out to allow traffic through. After two hours you emerge from the forest into a bowl of green hills. The journey ends at the village of Kanungu, a name which refers to the pottery which used to be made from its clay soil.

This is the heart of Africa. A few miles away are the Rift Valley and the volcanic Mountains of the Moon - Gorillas in the Mist country. Even closer are the apes of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve, which lure the few Westerners whom local people have ever seen. Until recently, that is: since 17 March, a remote place with no electricity or telephones has been beset with all the modern technology the international media can bring to bear - laptop computers, satellite phones, mobile television editing suites and the generators to run them.

For Kanungu has become identified with the worst cult tragedy in modern history. On St Patrick's Day, at about 10am, the church of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God just below the village erupted into flame. More than 500 people were locked inside. Their deaths were at first thought to be a mass suicide, but when police cut through a freshly-laid concrete floor in one building, they found a pit from which they recovered six bodies. These bore machete wounds and signs of strangulation, and they began to realise they were dealing with a case of mass murder.

The scale of the crime is still becoming apparent. Nearly 400 more bodies have been exhumed at four other cult sites in the region, and several more suspected graves have yet to be investigated. Overwhelmed by the demands of an investigation which would have taxed the resources of any industrialised country, the local police have had to re-inter the putrefying corpses until more help arrives. At Kanungu, the wreckage of the church was bulldozed and the incinerated bodies buried in a trench, but the stink of decay still lingers over the site, clinging to clothes, shoes and skin. The smell is worst near the opened pit, reinforcing the suspicion that many more corpses remain there.

Already the number of dead exceeds that in the mass suicide of Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978: the Ugandan government says the total is over 1,000. But in a country of 22 million, where there is only one police pathologist, it is quite possible that many, even most, of the questions hanging over this African apocalypse will never be answered.

Among the most pressing are these: how were so many murders committed without anyone suspecting? What drew people to a way of life so grindingly harsh? They had to sell all their property and hand over the proceeds. Often they would pray all night and work all day in the fields. They fasted twice a week and were not allowed to communicate except by sign language or written notes. Sex, even soap, were forbidden. Above all, how did Credonia Mwerinde, a former seller of banana brew and part-time prostitute, acquire such power in the cult?

In Kanungu, where she was born 48 years ago, they are as baffled as the rest of the world. All they know is that she went away poor, badly educated, held in contempt, and returned in 1992 with hundreds of devotees to build a commune on land inherited from her father. She had lured Joseph Kibwetere, a former school inspector turned prosperous businessman, away from his wife and installed him as nominal leader - in rural Uganda's traditional society she needed a male figurehead. Even more extraordinarily, a woman who had completed only a couple of years of primary school had managed to draw in Dominic Kataribabo, a Roman Catholic priest who had just returned from three years in California, where he obtained a PhD in theology.

In the only known photograph of the cult's leaders, Mwerinde and her fellow visionary, Ursula Komuhangi, are dressed as nuns. Kataribabo is still dressed as a priest, despite his excommunication in 1991. Kibwetere too is wearing clerical garb, an episcopal-style cross on a chain round his neck. The other three have their hands joined in vaguely reverential fashion, but Credonia, staring blankly at the camera, has her palms flat on her knees. It is a frightening image of her brooding power.

"The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over those who would not have repented," she wrote in a handbook published by the movement, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times. "This fire will also reach inside the buildings; there is no way one can escape." None of the cult's leaders have been seen since the church fire, now known to have been fuelled with petrol, but the recent disclosure that three bodies were found in a small ante-room has hardened the belief that they are dead.

But if that prediction seems clear enough, most of the booklet consists of incoherent, near-psychopathic warnings. Uganda, it says, has been cursed with Aids because of beer-drinking and perverse practices that "increase the anger of the Almighty God". Herbalists, to whom many Ugandans go for treatment, are in the "company of the devil". As for cats and dogs, they are "already possessed".

There are messages for some cities and countries outside Uganda. London is told: "Your desire for doing evil will be fulfilled." The French are warned: "Your laziness will not permit you to endure the chastisement that will be inflicted upon you until you are destroyed in lamentations."

With no apparent survivors from the last days of the Ten Commandments movement, Ugandans are grasping for explanations. Some, such as the Catholic Archbishop of western Uganda, Paul Bakyenga, point out that the Great Lakes region has a history of violence: genocide in Rwanda, continuing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which spilled over the border last year when eight Western tourists, including four Britons, were abducted from Bwindi game park by Congo rebels and murdered. Uganda itself was terrorised under Idi Amin and the equally murderous Milton Obote, and is still fighting rebels in the north.

But others question how much of Africa there is in this latest tragedy. The profile of the cult matches almost exactly a checklist available on the internet: unquestioning commitment to the leadership, mind-numbing techniques such as long prayer sessions and debilitating work; prescription by the leadership of almost every detail of life; isolation from families and so on.

"All the religion of this movement was imported," says Robert Gay, Catholic Bishop of Kabale, in whose diocese Kanungu falls. A 73-year-old French Canadian, he first came to Uganda in 1962, and has been in the country continuously since 1987, after a spell in Rome as head of the White Fathers missionary order. "They abused a number of symbols linked with valid devotions. There is nothing wrong with fasting, solitude and silence, until you carry it to excess.

"What you could call African was the way they exploited the reverence people have here for the clergy. Very many of the people who joined, particularly the women and children, had no idea that the movement had been proscribed by the Church and priests in it excommunicated." Indeed, the cult's booklet insists: "Ours is not a religion, but a movement that endeavours to make the people aware that the Commandments of God have been abandoned, and gives what should be done for their observance."

As for the explanation an embarrassed Ugandan government gives, that people followed the cult because of an atmosphere of despair over poverty and Aids, Bishop Gay commented: "[President Yoweri] Museveni is in a tight spot, because it emerges that people had complained about this movement to the local authorities, but they had been bought off. In any case, one can exaggerate the poverty. This part of Uganda is very fertile, and you cannot starve unless you are an alcoholic or completely feckless.

"What I noticed was that people joined the cult when there had been trouble in the family - when a man couldn't feed his children, or when he took a second wife and the first one couldn't stand it. It explains why so many women and children died. The worst thing is the children, more than a third of the victims. They were just following their mothers." Africa's strong family bonds also meant that once they had taken such a drastic step, their relatives would consider them already dead. Even if they wanted to leave, they had made themselves completely dependent on the cult.

Like other Catholic clerics in the region, Bishop Gay had tried to bring Kataribabo back into the fold, but he wanted to pursue "direct contact" with God. His break with the Church has been ascribed to disappointed ambition, but neighbours at Rugazi, where 155 bodies were found around his house, said he was completely subservient to Mwerinde.

According to Theresa Kibwetere, Joseph's wife, Credonia had equal power over her husband. Credonia and Ursula Komuhangi moved into their home in 1989, telling him that the Virgin Mary had said they should go to him. All four shared a bedroom, where Joseph began to have visions. Theresa denies that Credonia also shared his bed, but there was no question who dominated the home, or the 200 followers there by 1992, when village elders told them to leave. She last saw her husband in 1995.

Credonia's motives have been the subject of much speculation. Many claimed she wanted money. There is no evidence, however, that the cult's leaders lived more lavishly than their adherents, though they excused themselves from labour in the fields. Perhaps Credonia became carried away by her ability to manipulate, and was governed by a mixture of self-disgust over her past and a desire for revenge on the society that had scorned her. Forming a sect was a natural vehicle for her ambitions.

But even Credonia's powers were strained by the repeated failure of the world to end, even on the night of 31 December, which many mainstream Christians in Uganda thought it prudent to spend in church. According to some who quit the cult this year, people began demanding their money be returned. It appears the leadership decided that if God would not send retribution, they would deliver it themselves. Neighbours at every cult site began to notice the same things: pits were dug - for latrines, they were told - and screened off. Cars and minibuses came and went at night, and in the last days before 17 March, members gave away all they had before departing for Kanungu.

The discovery of the graves has forced everyone to try and imagine the unimaginable. Were cult members so brainwashed they waited their turn to be strangled and thrown into the pits? Were they drugged or poisoned before being killed? How can neighbours claim to have seen and heard nothing?

Fear there certainly is: at one site, Kabira, where 81 bodies were found, Harriet Nsiime and her children were the only people still nearby. "Everyone has gone away, and I would too if I had anywhere to go," she says. She had been afraid since she peeped through the matting before the apocalypse, and cult members had stared silently back at her.

In this forensic fog, some have been tempted to take refuge in "heart of darkness" explanations which carry a whiff of racism. But rather than seek evil within a society, one can ask whether it is in an individual. Jim Jones in Guyana; David Koresh in Waco; Shoko Asahara in Japan - and now Credonia Mwerinde in Uganda? Hearts of darkness, yes, but within them, not in the cultures that bred them.