Uganda cult death count to top 1,000

Amid the stench of decomposing bodies, people are asking how a prostitute could have gained such influence
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Uganda's Vice-President, Speciosa Wandire Kazibwe, diplomats and other senior figures will make the long journey to this remote south-western town today for a multi-denominational prayer service for the victims of the most murderous religious cult in modern history.

The service will be held almost within sight of where more than 600 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in a locked, blazing church on St Patrick's Day. The stench of decomposing bodies, still lingering over the cult's compound, could reach to where their souls are being prayed for.

Excavations at Kanungu and three other sites have already revealed the bodies of 924 people, many of them apparently drugged or poisoned before being strangled.

The death toll already exceeds by 11 that in the mass suicide of Jim Jones and his followers in Guyana in 1978 and is likely to rise to well over 1,000 when investigations resume at a number of other suspected grave sites.

The scale of the slaughter has shocked the world and overwhelmed the meagre resources of the police in south-west Uganda. At the weekend, smarting from local and international criticism of their apparent ignorance of the cult's activities and their slow response once the tragedy began to unfold, they appealed for international help.

After local newspapers published photographs of bare-chested prisoners from nearby jails being ordered to bring decaying corpses out of burial pits, the police announced that further excavations would be suspended until a pathologist could be present on each site and the necessary protective clothing and equipment, such as body bags, were available.

So far, almost none of the main questions about the cult, such as the whereabouts of its leaders, what their motives were or why so many people were impelled to follow them, have been satisfactorily answered.

None of the leaders have been seen since 17 March, and although the son of the movement's founder, Joseph Kibwetere, insists his father died in the church fire, it would have been easy to slip across the nearby borders with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As those who attend the prayer meeting look across the lush hills rolling away into Congo and wonder how something so evil could happen in so beautiful a place, people in Kanungu have a different question: how did a local prostitute, Credonia Mwerinde, attain such influence in the cult, and what part did she play in its grisly end?

Mr Kibwetere set up the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments after claiming to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1984. The cult did not appear to take off, however, until after Ms Mwerinde, who said she too had spoken to the Virgin, joined.

Soon she moved into the Kibwetere family home, and began beating the children in front of their mother, Theresa. When the cult was driven out of Mr Kibwetere's home town, it set up its headquarters in Kanungu, on land which belonged to Ms Mwerinde's father.

"I knew her for a long time," said Davis Kyorisiima, a policeman who had returned home on leave from his posting in the capital, Kampala. "She used to sell tonto [a local brew made from bananas] and go with men. She had suffered for a long time - people looked down on her and she had very little money. But when she joined with Catholic priests who belonged to the cult, things got better for her."

How did she suddenly gain such influence over others? "I don't know. We didn't think of her as intelligent - she failed school and left after Primary 2." But Mr Kyorisiima was sure of one thing: Ms Mwerinde's main motive was money. "When she came back here she had changed. The inner circle of the cult had plenty of money, and she looked very smart and healthy. She seemed friendly."

Did local people blame her for what had happened? "We blame her for the deaths of so many children. Adults joined the cult of their own free will, but all they did was follow their parents."

The high proportion of women and children among the victims has led to speculation that Ms Mwerinde had conceived a desire to dispose of them. Mr Kibwetere's daughter Edith said that Ms Mwerinde once claimed the Virgin Mary had told her all children under five should be killed, and that a sacrifice was needed immediately.

At the Catholic church on the hill overlooking Kanungu, Father Christopher Busingye had another explanation for the local woman's actions. "She wanted to restore traditional beliefs such as ancestor worship," he said. "She preserved her influence over the followers by using witchcraft and charms. They used to do things like burning clippings of a person's pubic hair, then forcing them to drink the ashes in water."

Ms Mwerinde had been influenced in her turn by her father, who stuck to the old beliefs. She claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary at a rock visited by her father and other traditionalists. "When her father died," said Fr Busingye, "she wanted the cult to go over to ancestor worship immediately."

There was support for his argument in a classroom at the compound, where the only African figure among abandoned and broken religious statues was pointed out by a police guard, Jim Muhwezi, as being of Ms Mwerinde's father, Paulo Kashaka. Did the constable have any explanation for what had happened? "I don't understand why anyone would do this," he said.