by Willy Wegner, translated by Claus Larsen
Kanungu: The cult’s headquarters
Joseph Kibwetere took the advice of the elder council and moved away together with the rest of the cult, never to set foot in his old home.
At first, Mwerinde wanted to buy the land around the caves, where she claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. Instead, her father offered his farm near Kanungu to the cult, despite resistance from the local catholic church. The deal went through, and the cult was granted status as an NGO (non-governmental organization) by the Ugandan government later that year.
When Credonia Mwerinde’s father died in 1996, he was buried next to the mother, and Mwerinde had the now sadly known church built near the family grave site.
Later, the cult bought several farms in the south of Uganda, and many were attracted to the cult, thanks to the eloquent Kibwetere’s fire-and-brimstone preachings, and the mysticism of Mwerinde. At this time, it was loosely estimated that the cult had between 1,000 and 1,500 followers.
Locally, the place in Kanungu was called Katate, but the cult renamed it to Ishayuuriro rya Maria, which reportedly means “the place where (the Virgin) Mary comes and saves the spiritually stranded.”
The complex consisted of a modern house, where the leaders obviously stayed, and two large dormitories, one for the men and one for the women. Additionally, there were a couple of guest houses, some clay huts, a school and a church yard. The adjoining fields became a farm, with poultry, cattle and other produce. Finally, the cult ran two markets in the cities of Kanungu and Katojo.
In 1997 the cult established a school for 300 children, officially opened by the Ugandan government’s district commissioner, Kita Gawera. But soon after, it was closed by the central authorities due to poor sanitation, low educational standards, and violations of the children’s rights.
Daily life in the “Ark”
When arriving to the camp, which Kibwetere also referred to as the “Ark”, the candidate had to hand over his or her clothes, receiving black clothing instead. It was not allowed to dress as desired. The old clothes were either sold, or given away.
During the cult’s christening ritual, the candidate were shaved all over the body, and the nails were cut. Later, the hair and nail clippings were burned to ashes, and the ashes were dissolved in tea or water which the candidate had to drink. Parts of the ashes were mixed with an ointment, which was smeared on the candidate’s body. After this ritual, the candidate was considered cleansed.
When a cult member had “seen” the ten commandments, he would be upgraded to green clothing, while those who were willing to die in the “Ark” had to wear part green, part white clothing.
Even though the colors were different, the clothing was the same design: A long-sleeved, full-length coat. The women covered their head with a scarf with the same colors as their coat. The members were also required to carry three rosaries. Only the leaders were allowed to wear footwear.
Speaking was also prohibited. The cult practiced “the golden silence”: Members had to write to each other, or use a special sign language, which were taught to all. Despite that Kibwetere officially was the leader, and as such could demand more rights than the rest of the members, he nevertheless has been described as one of the most faithful to this code of silence. If a member wanted to contact with him, it would always have to be in writing or by sign language. He rarely showed himself, and was mostly absent from the daily life.
Sleeping in beds and on mattresses was not approved of. The blankets were thin. The majority of the followers were poor and lived in squalid quarters, while those who gave money to the church lived better, in mud huts.
Apart from Kibwetere and Mwerinde, men and women lived separately. Sex, even between married couples, was banned. The children in the camp were all brought by their parents.
The children were abused, although not sexually, like in similar cults, or even in the Catholic church. In a cult, the children are not particularly productive, or even useful in any way: They require time and attention from their parents, time that should be spent on prayer, singing psalms and field work. Additionally, they have to be fed all the time, and be instructed to keep quiet. In the Kanungu cult, it became a sport for the children to play together without saying a word, because they were also bound by the demand for silence. But what does a cult, especially a doomsday cult, need children for, if the last day is very near?
Every moment of each day was planned: Monday, Wednesday and Friday were fasting days. The days started at 3 am, with two hours of prayer, after which members could sleep until 7 am, where the real work day started. At 1 am, another hour of prayer followed, after which the members could rest until 4 am, when the work began again. At 8 pm, food was served, and the day ended with prayer at 11 pm.
The other days followed basically the same plan, with added cleaning before lunch and an extra prayer early in the afternoon. It was only during prayer and psalm singing that the golden silence could be broken.
Sunday was resting day: Work and other activities were prohibited. Apart from that, it was like being in a labor camp.
Lunch could be a piece of sugar cane, or a bowl of porridge, with a bit more for supper. The menu of the leaders was more sumptuous, with meat on the table.
The members of the cult suffered a constant lack of food and sleep. They were cut off from their families and the world outside the cult. They were not allowed normal emotions, and were even prevented from speaking to each other, due to the golden silence rule.
The hard labor and degradation, confusion, exhaustion, and absolute faith in the cult’s leaders meant that the members were vulnerable and easy to manipulate.
Richard Tumobwinje had tried the harsh daily life in the cult. In 1995, he was 19 years old, and had followed his mother and 10 siblings into the cult. He told of early morning prayer, hard labor, and diseases. Medicine was unattainable. Instead, they were told that the angels were looking out for them. Despite this, many died of malnutrition, due to the less-than-heavenly food.
Sometime, in the beginning of 1998, Mwerinde, Kibwetere and Kataribabo went on a trip outside the cult. Yumobwinje recalls, that most were too sick to run away. When Mwerinde came back, she flew into a rage, because the members had done little in the leaders’ absence. She used the foulest of language and began throwing rocks after them. Tumobwinje had had enough, and left the cult.
The cult kept away from the locals, which in turn had few converts to the cult. Contact to the outer world was as limited as possible, and members were only rarely allowed to leave the camp. If they had visitors, they had to meet in a special area of the camp.
But relations to the local authorities were fine – perhaps too fine. Some of the women were working daily as housemaids in the district commisioner’s house in Kanungu. Joyce Mpanga is a member of the parliament, and is on the Registration Board for the NGOs in Uganda. She recalled that the district commissioner in Rukungiri as early as 1994 wrote to the board, arguing against the cult’s activities. But local leaders in Kanungu supported the cult, and claimed that it acted in compliance with legislation.
Richard Mutazindwa was one of the few people arrested following the tragedy in Kanungu. He was released on bail after a month, while the case was still ongoing. He was arrested on March 29, on charges of not informing about the cult’s activities, since he was assisting district commissioner there. He was accused, among other things, to have kept secret a report from Gombolola Internal Security Officer, that said that the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a threat to national security.
The magical year 2000
The leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God had predicted, that after three days of darkness, the end of the world would take place on December 31, 1999. The end of the world had already been predicted some years earlier. A second attempt was now made, along with the essential message:
To all those who live on the planet, listen to what I have to say:
When the year 2000 has ended, the year that follows will not be the year 2001. That year will be called Year 1 for the generation which will follow the existing generation. The next generation will consist of few or many people, depending on who will repent.
The Lord has told me that storms of fire will rain from the sky and spread across all those who haven’t repented. They will be burned, but not die immediately. This fire will also reach into the houses; there will be no possibility of escape.
Those who have repented, will be asked to seek shelter in those houses built for this. Those houses are called “Ark” or “Ship”.
We will definitely lead you to Jesus through the blessed Virgin Mary, who has authorized us.
Since the 10 Commandments have been abandoned and broken, those who end up in Hell will be many. Those who go to Heaven, will be few.
When that day would come, salvation was only possible for those cult members who were present in the camp in Kanungu, where the church by definition was an Ark. But the end of the world didn’t happen, and the leaders began to lose their tight grip on the members.
Several cult members had given all their worldly belongings to the cult. Some began to feel cheated. The otherwise sacred rule of silence, hard labor and chastity began to dissolve. To save their own behinds, the cult leaders then claimed, that the Virgin Mary had appeared before them, and said that the end of the world had been postponed. The members were encouraged to go home, and wait for further notice on when they should return and be taken to Heaven.
Earlier, Credonia Mwerinde had claimed that the missing ends of the world were due to the many prayers: God had shown mercy. Mercy? What paradox! To be taken to Heaven, saved, must be the ultimate reward. But this time, it was for real: God’s patience had run out. Not surprisingly, some cult members became more than skeptical, when the prophecy failed at the end of 1999.
The message was spread to the followers: March 17, 2000 would be the Big Day. The cult leaders had apparently concocted a plan, and probably also understood that they couldn’t cancel yet another Doomsday. The leaders knew that there was no way back: If they couldn’t plan the end of the world, at least they could plan the end of the cult, as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The leaders now began selling the property, handed over to them by the members: Businesses, farm animals, clothes, etc. Many nearby villages made a good deal, everything was sold below market value. Obviously, money had to be acquired. Even Dominic Kataribabo sold his own house to a nephew, to a fourth of the value. Money owed to the cult was cashed, but bills were also settled. The police discovered later that the leaders had withdrawn an unspecified amount from a bank account.
As mentioned, dissent was noticeable. The cult leaders asked those members who refused to pay or sell out to send written complaints. Those who did, were called in, either alone, or in small groups. Several of the complaining members were never seen again, and when inquiries were made, the remaining members were told that they had been moved to other camps. It was only later that people realized what had happened to them.
One neighbor reported, that the cult had stopped working in the fields as early as October 1999: Mwerinde had told him that there was no reason to continue with the work, if the world was about to end anyway.
Instead, they began to dig holes, deep holes, the neighbor remembers. They were reportedly for new latrines. Between Christmas and New Year’s, mats of papyrus were put up, shielding the compound on three sides.
Between New Year’s and the fire, neighbors could hear an increase in cars coming in and leaving the cult’s headquarters, especially at night.
About a week before the Big Day, Friday March 17, the remaining members of the other camps were brought to Kanungu, so they could participate in the celebration of the upcoming Doomsday, with a sumptuous feast the day before. They were promised that, on the day, the Virgin Mary would arrive personally, wearing flames for clothes, to be with them, and lead the repentent and hence saved to Heaven.
And what a feast. Roast beef instead of the daily porridge, with 70 liter of cola to wash it down with. The leaders also feasted along with invited guests, but by themselves, in their own house.
The Friday, a day of fast, began as usual, with morning prayer. The reason given for locking members inside the church was that only those inside would be liberated and enter Heaven. Doors and windows were nailed shut.
Around 10.15 Rutemba Didas, a neighbor, heard an explosion, when he was working in his field, close to the cult’s church. It sounded more like a “whoosh” than a bang, he said. He saw smoke and flames from the roof of the house, and screams for help. It lasted maybe a few minutes, but he can’t recall exactly how long.
An eyewitness reports
One of the first journalists on the site was Richard Tusiime from the newspaper Orumuri.
Richard Tusiime had been a journalist for several years, but described the covering of the fire at Kanungu as the worst assignment he had ever received. Together with a colleague, they reached Kanungu on Saturday afternoon, the day after the fire. They found the chief of the local Home Guard, Steven Mujuni. Mujuni was informing the locals and relatives who were arriving of what had happened. They were told that all those inside the church were burned beyond recognition, but they were allowed to enter the church, in order to collect some ashes for a funeral. He also told them that a construction team from Rukungiri was expected, to dig a mass grave for the victims.
The police were absent. Instead, Home Guards in military uniforms were present. One Home Guard led the two journalists to the site of the fire. Richard Tusiime says:
“I got chills seeing the corpses in the church. The majority were lying on top of each other, close to the entrance, so they must have sought to escape that way. They were in different positions: Some were crouching, others on their knees, with their faces to the ground, like praying Muslims.
Some were melted together, embracing. What was shocking to me was the number of small kids among the dead. Most were burned beyond recognition. They were naked, their clothes were burned. Most skulls were exploded, as were their intestines. There was a thick, yellowish discharge from the victims’ rectums. A very large man was laying by another door, a distance of seven meters from the other victims. A part of his priest gown covered his chest. His body was only partially burned.”
When Tusiime approached the camp, he noticed a car. He recognized Joseph Kibwetere’s oldest son, Maurice Rugambwa. Tusiime’s mother had gone to school together with Kibwetere. The son was convinced that his father was among the dead, because the day before the fire, Kibwetere had written a letter to his wife, who he hadn’t been in contact with for many years. Along with the letter were some books and the message that he would perish, and a wish that the family would continue his work. This convinced the son that his father was among the dead, but asked Tusiime not to tell anyone that he was the son of Kibwetere.
Many of the arriving people who hoped to identify their dead family members were in vain holding twigs of rosemary to their noses, to quelch the stink of fire and death.
Among the dead were four policement, one planted by the authorities as an informat. The chief of police in the region told that the cult outsmarted the police men. Either they managed to convert the police men, or they had them transferred to other branches of the cult. However, information about how the cult was kept under surveillance is contradictory and unsure.
Other sources within the police contradicted the chief of police, and claimed that out of four police men, two of them were on sick leave due to mental problems, a third was reported having deserted from the police, and the fourth apparently never an employee with the police at all.
A government forensic had counted 330 skulls in the church, and, at first, 78 children. Later, the official count was 530 in the church building itself, a number now thought to be doubtful.
The last anyone had seen of a cult member was on the eve of March 16, when a man called Kaganga had driven to the police station in Kanungu, in the cult’s Toyota Corona. He deposited the deed of the cult’s land, apparently in a depressed state of mind, mumbling and using sign language that something was about to happen. The police took no action, and the car vanished.
The general assumption was at first that all the members of the cult, including the leaders, perished in the flames. That was also the opinion of the local police.
Suicide or deadly arson?
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in charge of Regional Cooperation, Amama Mbabazi, visited the place the following Wednesday, saying that the two top leaders of the cult possibly were not among those who perished in the church.
Around 7:30 am, 17 year old Peter Ahimbisibwe was hungry, and had run away from the camp, heading for his father’s house to get something to eat, although he knew it was a sin on a day of fasting. On his way from the church, he saw another cult member by the name of Hillary, carrying a hammer and nails. Thus, Peter came back, fortunately, too late. His mother and older sister died in the church.
Later, Ahimbisibwe said that although Kibwetere and Mwerinde prayed with the congregation in the church Thursday evening, they didn’t sleep in the camp that night, and they were also missing at the early morning prayer. He claimed to have seen Kibwetere and Credonia Mwerinde leave the camp separately Thursday evening, each bringing a small bag.
Even though he had only been in the camp a week, following his mother’s wish, he knew who they were: Part of his previous education had taken place at the camp school, where Kibwetere and Mwerinde used to lead the prayer.
Other locals have told that they saw Mwerinde leave the camp. Only two leading cult members were identified in the smoldering rubble: A priest and the leader of the cult’s farm. The priest was identified by some sources as Dominic Kataribabo, while family members of Joseph Kibwetere thought it was him.
After what is known about Credonia, she was not a woman intent on killing herself. Baguma Gaston is the local drunk in Kanungu, and he claimed he saw a taxi leave the village, around 6:30 am, when he was buying cigarettes. He is absolutely certain he saw Credonia and one of her sisters in the car, along with two children and one man that was not Kibwetere.
A notorious drunk is not the best witness, but on the other hand, he has spent part of his life in Credonia’s bar, and know her from the old days. A journalist writes: “Who other than a drunk would be qualified to recognize a former bar maid?”
Throughout the years, assassination had been Credonia’s tool to increase her own wealth and to get rid of potential enemies. Family members and acquaintances say that it would not be enough for her to merely run away with the church’s money: She also had an ingrained need and well-practiced habit of getting rid of those who knew her inner secrets.
To be continued.