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Ugandan Horror Grows

By Karl Vick, in The Washington Post, Wednesday 29 March 2000

RUGAZI, Uganda, March 28—In the 11 days since at least 330 members of a doomsday cult perished in an explosive fire, what appeared to be an inexplicable case of mass suicide in an isolated Ugandan town has been transformed by a stream of fresh horrors into what authorities now describe as mass murder on an extraordinary scale.

Just three days after the March 17 inferno in the main compound of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God at Kanungu, authorities found six more bodies sealed under concrete in a nearby pit latrine. Then 153 corpses were unearthed at a second cult compound a few miles away, near Rukungiri. And this afternoon, while workers were counting 74 more bodies discovered on a hilltop here that the cult used as yet another campus, Ugandan police investigator Terense Kinyera found himself casting a suspicious eye on what appeared to be recently poured concrete in a closet of the main house.

Men with heavy iron bars were summoned to punch a hole in the concrete, and Kinyera's suspicion was confirmed. The first desiccated corpse was pulled out an hour later. By the time the sun settled onto the glimmering surface of nearby Lake Edward, 28 more bodies--most of them children--had been laid on the lawn of the home of an excommunicated Catholic priest who was identified as a cult member. Workers said they saw at least as many waiting to be recovered. By sunset, when the diggers paused, the total number of dead recovered here in the lush hills of southwestern Uganda stood at 591.

Like those unearthed at other sites, many of the dead here appeared to have been strangled, one apparently with a banana leaf. Others bore stab wounds. A pathologist gathered tissue samples to test for poison.

"We're looking at murder," said Godfrey Bangirana, an assistant police commissioner, pausing on the short stroll from one pile of corpses to the other on a hilltop thick with the smell of death. "You cannot kill all of these human beings alone. This was an organized crime, and an organized crime can't be committed by one person. It must be a group."

Suspicion has centered on cult leaders, whom police at first declared had perished in the inferno at Kanungu, a village 50 miles south of here and 200 miles southwest of Kampala, the capital. Investigators say they are on the lookout for Joseph Kibweteere, 68, the former Catholic priest who described a vision of the Virgin Mary extolling the Ten Commandments, and for Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, the former nun and onetime prostitute who urged him to found the sect.

In recent months the leaders were under pressure from sect members who awakened on Jan. 1, 2000, the day Kibweteere had predicted the world would end, to find doomsday had not arrived. Ugandan police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said "some of these leaders" may have escaped the Kanungu blaze that took the lives of the faithful with proceeds of the possessions initiates had been urged to sell before joining the sect.

A vehicle usually found at the Kanungu compound was not there after the blaze, Mugenyi said. It was, however, spotted on the night of the 17th at the second compound near Rukungiri, when someone tried to set its buildings afire. The subsequent discovery of 153 bodies in two mass graves there prompted police to search other sites associated with the cult.

The hilltop home here in Rugazi belonged to Dominic Kataribabo, 64, a former Catholic priest who joined the cult in the early 1990s. On family land with a commanding view of two lakes and a gorgeous valley, the sect established a "learning center." Neighbors said members clad in robes and permitted to speak only to pray, gathered by the dozens, sleeping in a crude dormitory erected behind Kataribabo's 10-room house.

The defrocked priest stayed at the house only occasionally between visits to the main compound. He was last seen on March 12, according to his brother, Arsen Oworynawe, 78, and seemed "normal," he said. Other residents said cult members were seen leaving a few days earlier in a minibus and pickup truck.

"People liked him and wanted him to pull out from this so-called new religion, but he wouldn't," said Michael Karyango, who lives in a nearby village.

The 74 bodies were found neatly stacked 10 feet beneath freshly turned earth behind the dormitory, in an area screened by a high fence. Forty-six were female. The sizable number of children included a baby only months old.

Police pathologist Thaddeus Barungi moved among the corpses, which had been laid out around the open trench like flower petals by prisoners who had to dig out the dead then, two hours later, return the corpses to the grave. Barungi said they appeared to have been in the earth less than a month.

The bodies found under the house had been dead longer than that, the pathologist said. The finding further deepened the mystery. Police wondered openly not only why the hundreds were murdered, but also whether those who killed them--and undertook the considerable task of disposing of the remains--later perished themselves, either in the Kanungu blaze or at another of the sect's killing grounds.

The concern is heightened by the hundreds of cult members who remain unaccounted for. While estimates of the group's membership vary from 1,000 to three times that, a Ugandan newspaper published the names and addresses of members who had registered at the main compound in the days before the conflagration there: There were 810.