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Uganda: Ghoulish Plan for Cult-Killing Site

Church compound where nearly 800 people were murdered six years ago set to become a tourist attraction
By Peter Eichstaedt
Today the lush hills around Kanungu are filled with clank of cowbells, the cry of goats and the shouts of children at play.



But six years ago, investigators were still sifting through the charred debris here at the site of one of the world’s worst cult mass murders.



The details remain vague. But what is known is that in the end, nearly 800 people died, all members of a pseudo-Christian cult called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.



Led by Cledonia Mwerinde, a former Kanungu barmaid and reputed prostitute who claimed to have visions, and a defrocked Catholic priest, Joseph Kibwetere, the cult required members to donate all their money and possessions to the movement.



Begun in late 1980s, the cult established itself in the early 1990s on Mwerinde’s family lands close to Kanungu. Over the next decade, it built a secretive compound of about a dozen buildings for its following of over 1000 adherents.



They lived an austere life of prayer and farm labour and prepared themselves for the end of the world, which Mwerinde predicted would come with the new millennium on December 31, 1999.



But when the world didn’t end as she predicted, members questioned the validity of the church and demanded their money and possessions be returned.



On March 17, 2000, Mwerinde gathered some 500 devotees in the cult’s church, which had been boarded shut and loaded with canisters of petroleum and acid, and ignited it, killing everyone.



At first, investigators thought it was a mass suicide akin to the infamous 1978 incident in which 913 members of the Peoples Temple community drank poison in Jonestown, Guyana.



But as mass graves were unearthed at the homes of the movement’s leaders in several other cities, the picture of systematic cult murders came into focus.



Among the other leaders was Father Dominic Kataribaabo, a defrocked pastor, under whose home and garden some 155 bodies were found.



Neither Mwerinde nor Kibwetere, who was in his late Sixties at the time, have been found. While some speculate they were both killed, others claim that Mwerinde fled through the jungles to the Congo with her congregations’ money.



Residents of Kanungu are still a bit reluctant to discuss the shocking event that brought the world to their doorstep.



But Charles Mukuru, 35, remembers it well. Like many other locals, he heard the explosion that infamous day and came running to the cult’s compound, witnessing the church burn to the ground.



“It was like a bomb,” he recalled when the church went up in flames. “Even children were burned completely. Everybody [had been] forced to come.”



He agrees that Mwerinde killed her followers because she could not return their money and possessions, “The leaders didn’t have anything to give back.”



He says movement members were forbidden from communicating with local townsfolk or using modern medicines and, as a result, many died of disease.



Although some locals lost relatives to the cult, and regret that their home is associated with mass killings, steps are being taken to turn the site of the outrage into a tourist attraction.



The town of Kanungu is set in the verdant foothills of western Uganda’s Rwenzori mountains and is on the way to the Bwindi Impenatrable Forest, home to the endangered mountain gorillas.



Because of the neglect, the site has been vandalised. “The place has gone wild,” said Elias Byamungu, chief administrator for the Kanungu district.



“This was the scene of a crime,” he said of the cult’s collapsing buildings. But after some debate, Kanungu council “saw it as a potential site for tourism”.



There’s been little attempt to restore the compound because of question marks over ownership, says Byamungu.



None of Mwerinde’s remaining relatives have stepped forward to claim it, he went on, and many documents relating to the property are still in the hands of the police.



While the district tries to obtain the site, Byamungu says many residents still wonder how the cult could have developed in their midst.



Byamungu blames poverty and lack of education, “The easiest thing to do to attract people is to use magic, spiritualism and mysticism.” Mwerinde’s movement used all of it, he said.



Despite its Christian trappings, he speculates the cult was a cover for devil worship. “Fire is part of (its) business,” he said of the final conflagration.



People are drawn to cults because “they assume they can get answers to the unknown”, especially when people like Mwerinde claim to have visions or special powers. Mwerinde claims to have visions of the Virgin Mary.



“It is a game of blood and spiritualism,” said Byamungu.



He believes the community has largely come to grips with the tragedy, “It is part of our history. We are trying to incorporate the negative into the positive.”



Whether Kanungu can, remains to be seen.



Peter Eichstaedt is a senior editor with IWPR-Africa. Good Musinguzi contributed to this report.