Silent Apocalypse of a Ugandan Cult
By Karl Vick, in The Washington Post, Monday 20 March 2000
Devotees moved about the tidy hillside compound cloaked in the clothes--green robes trimmed in white--and the almost total silence that area residents had come to associate with the peculiar band. The work they put into new construction signaled an investment in the future at odds with the leader's prediction that the world would end in 2000. A new sanctuary had been built. There were stated plans to buy a generator.
That, neighbors were told, was why they were buying so much gasoline.
The truth exploded Friday morning, in a fireball that brought much of the nearby farming village of Kanungu scrambling to the scene of what could be the largest mass suicide since 1978, when 914 people died by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink in Jonestown, Guyana. Members of the Ugandan doomsday cult had barricaded themselves in a former dormitory and, after singing and chanting, heard a final prayer.
Then a match was struck.
The final death toll remains to be tallied. But a preliminary count was provided late today by a government pathologist who moved gingerly across a concrete floor of charred remains, counting skulls.
"Three hundred thirty," the doctor announced, when he put down his pen. "Or more. Because some are ash. Burned completely to ash."
The tableau brought a steady stream of visitors to the hillside compound today about 217 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala, to gawk, debate causes and look for loved ones. Almost everyone held a sprig of rosemary to his nose against the stench, plucked from the herb garden planted below the compound's primary school.
"They would try to persuade me to come," said Diana Bitamba, 35, who employed several cult members on her nearby farm. "They were saying that the days are getting over, that the world was perishing so we should come and join them and go to heaven together.
"They were not worried about this thing," she said. "They were happy."
She stood above the corpse of a child cradled by the remains of a man. With a stick, she plucked at the dead man's collar. It had no flaps.
"That could be a priest," said Paul Manzi. "You can see by the collar."
The sect was formed in 1989 by former Roman Catholic priests and nuns. One of them, Joseph Kibweteere, announced that the Virgin Mary had appeared before him in a vision. He said he was to found a mission devoted to living by the Ten Commandments.
Kibweteere believed that the world would end on Dec. 31, 1999. When it did not, he reportedly pushed the date back a year. Then he called members from their homes across Uganda to Kanungu.
"The leaders notified the members that the time was at hand, so they gathered for the final revelation of the end of the world," said Stephen Okwalinga, regional police commander for southwestern Uganda.
Across Africa, religious sects are growing as many people become more and more disillusioned with the inability of politicians to improve their lives. Uganda has a particularly difficult history of religious groups and violence. The two main rebel groups at war with the government are based on religion. The Lord's Resistance Army attacks villages and carries off children in the semiarid north; in the western mountains, the Allied Democratic Forces claims a Muslim base.
In the late 1990s, the government began requiring cults to register with the government. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God complied. Richard Mutazindwa, the second-highest government official at the time, recalled friendly chats with adherents--chats that took place only after the members prayed for guidance on whether it was all right to talk.
"It is man's desire to satisfy himself being right with God," said Okwalinga, of what drew people to the sect.
"That longing," said Mutazindwa. "It's personal conviction and belief, and wanting to find a better world than this one."
Much has been made, he noted, of adherents selling their worldly goods before joining the sect, especially as the deadline for doomsday approached. Residents spoke of getting deals on cattle, goats and even motorbikes as the local market was flooded with goods.
But Mutazindwa said few of the devotees were wealthy. "Those who joined were the poorest of the poor," he said. "There were old women; they were not rich. But they sold what little they had and came here. They had Catholic fathers who were trained and ordained. One could not suspect that they had other, hidden motives."
In fact, authorities said deception set the stage for Friday's inferno. As adherents answered the call to gather outside Kanungu, sect leaders told local authorities that they were planning a party for Saturday. "The local authorities were even invited," Okwalinga said.
The names of those who arrived were duly noted in a register. Authorities counted 235, about 100 fewer than the bodies counted today. "Maybe they forgot to count the children," said the pathologist, who refused to give his name.
Some adherents were followed to Kanungu by relatives, anxious to bring them home. Okwalinga said the relatives were told to come for them Friday afternoon. At midmorning, a bell was rung. Members made their way down the steep hill. On the way, some paused at a storehouse to spill down the path the food they would no longer be needing. The walkway is caked with millet flour.
Two of the waiting relatives refused to go far. Police quoted them as saying the explosion came about a half-hour after the doors to the dormitory were closed and apparently locked from the inside. Authorities dismissed rumors that two cult leaders escaped. "We have reason to believe they are in there," Okwalinga said.
The hall was divided into two rooms, made one when the explosion knocked down the separating wall. Most of the bodies were in the room nearer the new church; the area nearest the door is especially crowded. Little appears to have burned except the people and the wood on the windows that witnesses said had been boarded from the outside. The concrete walls bear nary a scorch mark, while the bodies clearly burned hot. The mass is stippled by human humerus bones.
"We heard some people went around buying fuel," said Manzi, a customs officer who had arrived from Kampala. He was looking for his sister and her daughters. "They told my mother they were going to Kampala, but they're not there. They have been members of this organization. Of course I think they're here."
Another possibility remained, however. Nearby, in what was described as the "leader's house," still more bodies were found. The corpses were discovered beneath the concrete lid of what was built as a privy.
These victims, who had not been burned, appeared to have been dead perhaps a week, witnesses estimated. Neither the number nor the manner of death was known. Onlookers speculated the bodies were those of people done away with for threatening to expose plans for the mass suicide.
Okwalinga, the police commander, said it was too early to say. "We haven't even had time to look at those," he said.