Up to 600 cult members burnt in a locked church. Was it mass suicide - or murder?

Lucy Hannan,Uganda
Monday 20 March 2000 01:00

Dressed in their finest robes, they sang and chanted for several hours on Friday. Then they burnt to death, doused in paraffin. The doors were locked and the windows boarded and nailed shut - from the outside.

Dressed in their finest robes, they sang and chanted for several hours on Friday. Then they burnt to death, doused in paraffin. The doors were locked and the windows boarded and nailed shut - from the outside.

Yesterday the heaped bodies of up to 600 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments sect lay twisted and charred in gruesomely arrested panic.

In the small church building in the hillside commune of Kanungu, high in the hills of south-western Uganda, burnt hands appear to have clawed at windows and walls. Some bodies bent towards the floor as if in a final desperate prayer. The small skulls and skeletons of children and babies lay pinned beneath their dead families or pieces of collapsed roof.

They died in a prayer room the cult leaders had told them was their "Ark" - the place they would be safe from floods.

Meat bones and the remains of millet bread in an adjoining dormitory suggested a last supper. Locals said the sect had slaughtered three bulls and ordered 70 crates of soft drinks for a feast on Thursday night. Members had been told to sell their belongings and clothes the week before.

John Tibikumbya lost his wife and six children in the mass suicide - "I would call it murder," he said. His wife joined the commune three years ago and gradually moved all their children, taking a six-year-old only eight days ago. "She told them the blessed Virgin Mary would come and save them. She said it was a blessing, but it was death."

Otiembo Didas, a villager, heard a huge explosion at about 10 am on Friday, followed by the screams of people beating on wooden windows. He scrambled through bush to reach the mysterious commune and found pans, hoes, books and religious pictures scattered in an empty compound.

"The screams had stopped, but we could see buildings in flames," he said. "We saw clothes left in the compound, some washed in basins. We did not see any person running away. We don't know what happened to the leaders."

Up to 600 peasant people came to Kanungu to live with the sect, which some reports said was led by two former Catholic priests and self-styled prophet Joseph Kibweteere. Children were enticed away from parents. There was a vow of silence - sign language was the only communication allowed. Few members were local.

Mr Kibweteere is reported to have predicted that the world would end on 31 December, but changed that to 15 Marchwhen nothing happened at the millennium. There was speculation that he ordered more drastic action when nothing happened on 15 March either.

Local officials say it is not known whether the leaders died with their followers or whether any survivors had fled. In this poor, remote corner of Africa the lack of forensic science expertise means it may be impossible to establish the number of dead - or whether it was mass suicide or murder.

An early estimate of 250 dead was based on the tax-paying men from Kanungu camp, but security forces and local officials said as many as 600 people lived in the commune.

Corporal Godfrey Muwanga of the local civil defence force said a stench from cemented-up latrines supported his view that it was a mass murder. "We know there are rotting bodies down there - we are asking what really happened here."

Some villagers insisted the cult was established in 1994 by an alleged former prostitute, Credonia Mwerinde, at her family's compound and that she recently built the chapel on the graves of her parents. They said members sang and prayed a lot and that the women wore white veils and the men wore black, green or red shirts.

Despite its isolation, local authorities claimed they were "monitoring" the sect. The government had licensed the camp as a religious community, but tried to close its primary school in November 1998 for - an official letter said - "engaging in acts that violated the constitution [and] local government and the public health act ... and the rights of children". Children were malnourished and used as labourers, it was said.

Sister Stella Massis, of a local Catholic order, said Catholic leaders had continually tried to persuade Mr Kibweteere back into the church. She said he kept a videotape made in 1989 which he claimed was a personal address to him by the Virgin Mary to establish the Ten Commandments on earth and wait to be taken to heaven. Sister Massis said most of his followers were peasants, but included some professionals, policemen and priests.

Syncretic Christian religious sects are mushrooming across Africa as people become disillusioned with the impotence or corruption of political leaders.

One of the most notorious Ugandan sect leaders is Alice Lakwena, a spirit medium who told members of her Holy Spirit Movement that they would be protected from bullets by rubbing themselves with oil pressed from nuts. In 1987 she sought refuge in Kenya. Her nephew Joseph Kony took up the movement and called it the Lord's Resistance Army, saying it was based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA is believed responsible for the deaths of hundreds in northern Uganda and the abduction of thousands of children and young people.

At the scene yesterday, people peered inside the blown-out windows in horror, many holding sprigs of rosemary to ward off the stench. Relatives wept as officials began to organise local prisoners to demolish the collapsed buildings and bury the bodies in a mass grave.

Near the charred shell of the prayer room lay neat stacks of firewood, a maize mill and fields of sugar cane, testimony to the order of the commune. But in the main church building, its floor strewn with grass and its high ceiling decorated with red, green and black bunting, statues of the Virgin Mary lay broken. The statues leave no doubt that at least some of those in the church went to their death believing they were following the Virgin Mary.

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