Copyright 2000 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York)
April 1, 2000, Saturday
THE CULT'S MYSTERY / HOW DID ITS LEADERS DUPE SO MANY PEOPLE TO THEIR DEATHS?
By Tina Susman. AFRICA CORRESPONDENT
Kabumba, Uganda-He was a pillar in his community, a respected family man who shared his wealth with others and donated the land for the Roman Catholic church that sits on a grassy hill at the entrance to his village. She was a bawdy beer vendor whose sexual talents made her a hit with the men in her hometown.
Somehow, these seemingly opposite characters came together to form an outwardly pious sect which, 11 years on, has emerged as a sinister scheme that milked slavish followers of their wealth, freedom and their lives. Now, Joseph Kibwetere and Credonia Mwerinde are the most wanted fugitives in Africa, believed to be on the run after allegedly orchestrating the murders of more than 900 people who joined their Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
As mysterious as their whereabouts is the manner in which Kibwetere, 68, and Mwerinde, believed to be in her 40s, duped so many people to their deaths in these lush, mist-shrouded mountains.
"Maybe it's that lady who changed him, because he changed after she came," said Francis Bahizi, principal of the primary school that sits on the same land as the church in Kabumba, a remote farming village where Kibwetere was considered a model citizen.
"That man was acting as an example for all people to follow," Bahizi said. "In a village, you have someone who says something and you believe it. That was that man."
Mwerinde, on the other hand, sold her father's brewed banana beer and was shamelessly promiscuous-some say she was a prostitute-in her hometown of Kanungu, just 25 miles away but a two-hour drive along the narrow, rocky roads that lace through southwest Uganda.
"She was a harlot girl, getting so many men, living with one man for one month, then going to another," said Matthew Rukanyongira, a Kanungu businessman who rented a house to Mwerinde and who later rented a garage and a shop to the cult leaders.
By Friday, four mass-killing sites had been discovered at cult properties scattered throughout the region, and police had yet to excavate several others used by the cult to practice its fanatical form of worship.
At least 530 charred bodies were found in the church at the cult's headquarters in Kanungu on March 17. Since then, bodies piled like logs atop one another have been found at all four cult sites searched by police-beneath each freshly planted field, under every newly laid floor and inside every recently dug toilet.
Most of the people, including scores of children, appear to have been killed in the past couple of months with machetes, knives and pieces of cloth that remain knotted tightly around their decomposing necks.
Police speculate the cult leaders decided to kill off members after followers became skeptical about Kibwetere's claim that the world was about to end. They apparently began demanding back the money they had given the two, who created the sect after their personalities changed drastically and mysteriously in 1989.
Suddenly, Mwerinde began making the rounds of Kanungu telling people she had been called upon by the Virgin Mary to build a church that would strictly follow the Ten Commandments and guarantee its adherents entry to heaven.
"She used to tell me, 'You, Pius, do you want me to leave you behind in hell?'" said Kanungu's local council chairman, Pius Kabeireho, like Rukanyongira one of many powerful men she tried to recruit. "I said no to joining that religion. I said, 'If you are to leave me behind, just leave me behind.'"
Rukanyongira speculates that the reason for Mwerinde's change was a desire for wealth and her decision to use her persuasive personality to trick people into selling their property and giving her the proceeds.
"She said everything we have, we get it from sin, we get it from bad ways, " he said. "She said we must sell it, and when we give her the money she will give it to Mary."
Kibwetere, a wealthy, educated man in a backward region where such attributes command great influence, was apparently a ripe target for Mwerinde, who needed someone to head up her movement. Accompanied by two other women, she arrived one day in 1989, recalled Theresa Kibwetere, 64, while sitting in the living room of the rambling stone farmhouse she once shared with her husband. Around her were the remnants of her previous life-yellowed wedding pictures in dusty frames, portraits of the studious-looking man she married, and paintings of the pope, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Mwerinde quickly endeared herself to the deeply religious family with claims that Joseph Kibwetere himself had been chosen by God to lead her new church. "At first I believed what she was saying," said Theresa Kibwetere, rolling a rosary around in her weathered hands.
Mwerinde and Kibwetere set about trying to convert the village but did not get far because of their fanatical discipline, which included urging people to kneel and pray for eight hours on the concrete floor of the Catholic church and to adopt a code of absolute silence. At first, Kibwetere's wife and children followed his lead and joined the sect, but within a year they had become worried by the sect's extremism and cruelty and by the way Mwerinde took over the house. Within a few months, about 200 cult followers had accepted the harsh discipline and were living in the house, which had been emptied of most goods at Mwerinde's orders.
"Everything was taken away from here. They left only this furniture and these pictures," said Theresa Kibwetere, nodding at the musty wooden chairs and sofa and the old pictures on the wall. The Kibwetere children were evicted from their bedrooms and moved to a workers' shed out back, where they slept without mattresses on the lumpy, stone floor. Many days they went without meals, and if they broke a cult rule by asking for food or refusing to pray, they were punched and kicked into submission by Mwerinde and Kibwetere.
One of his sons, Giles, 37, speculates that his father's transformation from a kindhearted man to a monster can be linked to a downturn in his considerable fortunes in the 1980s. A venture into opposition politics failed, and his farm suffered. The family's 80 valuable cows were poisoned, something they suspect was a result of Kibwetere's political activity.
"I think maybe after he lost so much property he resorted to a new God. Even his religious views changed a lot," said his son. In the fiercely religious Kibwetere's weakened state, he says it could have been easy for him to believe in Mwerinde, described by many as an intensely persuasive woman whose outgoing, allegedly pious nature hid a wicked, greedy heart. "She was an evil woman camouflaging herself in prayer," said Giles, who recalls once being beaten so viciously with a lantern by Mwerinde that the lantern broke in half.
Even Theresa Kibwetere liked Mwerinde at first and welcomed her into their home, despite the fact that Mwerinde forced all the adults to sleep together in one room-ostensibly to enable them to pray together day and night. Now, Theresa Kibwetere believes her real reason was to maintain absolute control over the fledgling cult.
"She was a commander. Whatever she said must be done-had to be done," she said. "She was a great enemy to me. If I'd stayed with him, I would not be living now. She would have smashed me to pieces."
Whether it was a genuine belief in the religion or greed that persuaded him to stay in the cult when the rest of the family abandoned it, Theresa Kibwetere does not know. After Mwerinde, in one of her many rages, doused Theresa Kibwetere's clothes with kerosene and set them on fire, the family ordered the cult followers and their leaders out of the house. They appealed to Kibwetere to leave the cult and stay with them, but he refused and left, adhering strictly to his code of silence even when Giles visited him for the last time in 1997 in the Kanungu compound.
One of the few photographs of Kibwetere and Mwerinde, taken two years ago in Kanungu by Rukanyongira, shows a serious-looking pair dressed in dark clerical clothes-she in a nun's habit, he in a priest's collar-with large crosses hanging around their necks and their hands placed primly on their laps.
He has a slightly cherubic face, while she looks like a plain, boxy woman with bags under her eyes.
How they convinced so many people-cult membership is estimated at anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000-to believe in them is attributed to their combined persuasiveness and to many of their mostly uneducated followers' deep religious convictions and willingness to believe what a relatively rich man like Kibwetere told them. "They could follow Kibwetere because they said, 'If he can go that way, why not me?'" Bahizi said.
Theresa Kibwetere last saw her husband in 1995 when he emerged briefly from his life of religious seclusion to come home for the funeral of one of his 16 children. As had been his strange custom for the previous five years, he said not a word, not even when his wife made one last attempt to bring him back into the family fold.
"I greeted him, and when he was going away I said he should always come and see his family. He remained silent, and from that time I never saw him again, " she said, admitting that she still misses him when she remembers their previous life. "Yes, yes, quite a lot," she said, "but what can I do?"
Giles is not as sentimental. He says Kibwetere should go to hell for what he did. "I don't miss him," he said. "I missed him as a father who brought me up, but I don't miss him as a criminal."
LOAD-DATE: April 1, 2000
Copyright 2000 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York)
March 28, 2000, Tuesday
WHERE DEATH REIGNED / A SURVIVOR TELLS OF UGANDA CULT S BIZARRE REGIME OF SILENCE
By Tina Susman. AFRICA CORRESPONDENT
Rugazi, Uganda-They were up each day at 3 a.m. for an hour of prayers, then roused again at 5:45 and sent without breakfast to work in the fields. Bedtime came whenever their leaders chose to stop preaching to them. There was no speaking, no music, no soap, no snacking and no sex, and the rules were set by a self-proclaimed Head Apostle who was prone to frightening seizures when his authority was challenged.
Yet somehow Joseph Kibwetere managed to lure thousands of people into his fanatical sect and then many of them to their deaths, said Father Paul Ikazire, a Roman Catholic priest who once supported the cult but cut ties with it after becoming disillusioned with what he saw.
Yesterday the death toll from the cult leaders' apparent mass murder of their followers-already believed to be more than 600-grew as 74 bodies were pulled from the soil of a sugar cane field planted recently at one of the cult's properties.
"When I left I warned the fathers who were there that they should dissociate themselves. In fact, I told also the believers that this religion is not a religion according to the pope, according to Christ, and that people are going astray," Ikazire, 82, said yesterday, 10 days after the first of three mass killings was discovered in the hills of southwestern Uganda.
Despite the oddities of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, however, and despite its leaders' angry warnings that his denunciation of the sect could doom him, Ikazire said he was stunned to learn of the slaughter. "I never suspected that. It had never come into my mind," he said as prisoners drafted into the gruesome service of digging for corpses worked at a neighboring home owned by Dominic Kataribabo, a sect leader who used to be a Roman Catholic priest along with Ikazire in this village near the Rwandan border.
Police began searching the property last weekend after finding several hundred bodies at two other cult compounds in the region. In Kanungu, as many as 500 people were burned to death March 17 in a fire set inside the cult's main headquarters. One week later, 153 bodies, including those of 59 children, were found buried behind a cult house in Buhunga.
Police are treating all the deaths as murders, saying it appears the cult leaders, whose fates are unknown, decided to kill their followers after persuading them to sell their belongings and hand over all their money. In return they were promised entry to heaven when the world ended, but the world did not end as cult leaders claimed it would on Dec. 31, 1999, and the followers began demanding their belongings back.
For 10 years, Kibwetere, a former school principal and failed politician, and Cledonia Mwerinde, who described herself as a former prostitute, recruited people into the church with promises of salvation. Ikazire remembers when they first came to Rugazi in 1990 with a plan to join Catholic Church leaders in teaching the values of the Ten Commandments.
"I was in the parish down there," he said, pointing toward town from the hillside grove of trees in which his house is perched. "They said they had brought a message from heaven telling them the people of this area were no longer keeping the Ten Commandments and that we should call the people together so that they may talk to them. This we did. People came, and they talked to them, and in fact some of them confessed they had done wrong."
Ikazire said he supported Kibwetere because it did not appear he was planning to create his own religion. "The main idea they came with was to help people come back to God-not to take over, but to join us."
Within a year, Ikazire developed misgivings. He visited one of Kibwetere's compounds and discovered the leader was preaching a new religion. Worse yet, he concluded that rather than teaching people to live by the Ten Commandments, Kibwetere and Mwerinde were violating them.
"For example, they were asking people to sell their land, to sell their property and to bring the money all to them," he said. "To ask people to give all their money, to sell their property, this is not good."
As Ikazire spent more time around the sect, he learned other things that bothered him. "Their rule was not to speak-not to speak at all, so nobody could give information to others. They were speaking in signs," he said, gesturing with his hands to indicate the form of communication that took place. "Even the children remained silent."
Children were not allowed to attend public schools as they might learn "bad manners," Ikazire said, and even the youngest were not immune from the punishing schedule Kibwetere invoked: rising at 3 a.m. for prayers, back to bed until 5:45, into the fields to farm, first meal at 10 a.m., back to the fields and then supper-often porridge-at about 6 p.m. followed by more prayer. If Kibwetere or Mwerinde decided to preach, followers could be forced to sit up until 1 a.m.
Their sermons were the only spoken words allowed in the compounds, he said, hence it was impossible to criticize or question the leaders. "This I saw was very, very dangerous."
Mondays and Fridays were fasting days, and eating during the rest of the week was permitted only during scheduled meal times. This was about the only time, other than during prayers, when men and women could be together. Even husbands and wives were kept apart, forced to live in different dormitories and barred from physical contact.
One of the more bizarre rules was the rule against skin soap, which forced people to wash with laundry powder. One day, Ikazire recalls, a woman had a bar of hand soap and began to wash with it, driving Mwerinde into a rage. "She took that soap and tried to beat her with it," he said.
Kibwetere frequently lost his temper, Ikazire said, particularly when his authority was questioned. During one meeting when Ikazire wanted to express his concerns over the cult to Kibwetere, he said the cult leader ordered him to say his piece in two minutes.
"I said two minutes was not enough time. He stood up and he came and stood over me like that," Ikazire said, standing erect with his fists clenched, his eyes wide open, and his body appearing to shake uncontrollably. "I stayed seated and I said to myself if he tries to beat me, I will tell him what is what."
Kibwetere fell into such seizures often when he became irritated, perhaps by something as benign as fidgety children, Ikazire said.
By 1994 Ikazire, who had lived with the group but not joined officially, had decided to cut his ties with the cult. Kibwetere and Mwerinde were angry and warned he would be dead by the end of the year, although they did not say how he would die.
After that, Ikazire said, he had no contact with the cult but saw their members, usually dressed in black and dark green, coming and going from the nearby compound where the latest bodies were found. He won't say whether he thinks the leaders are dead or alive or whether he believes they murdered their faithful followers, but he's sure of one thing: that they never believed what they preached and wanted only to get rich.
"A real priest does not demand money from believers," he said. "They don't ask you to bring money, money, money."
GRAPHIC: AP Photos - 1) A Ugandan child uses leaves to ward off the smell as jail prisoners dig outside compound in Rugazi, where 74 more bodies were unearthed yesterday. 2) At right, a police officer adjusts a prisoner's mask to block smell amid digging. 3) AP File Cover Photo - Undated photo believed to be cult members, including Joseph Kibwetere, second from left, and Cledonia Mwerinde, in white.
LOAD-DATE: March 29, 2000
Copyright 2000 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York)
March 27, 2000, Monday
MORE UGANDA BODIES EXPECTED / POLICE SUSPECT ANOTHER BRANCH OF CULT MURDERS
By Tina Susman. AFRICA CORRESPONDENT
Bunyaruguru, Uganda-It was an odd but seemingly law-abiding bunch of religious zealots who lived in the isolated house at the top of the steep hill, and it wasn't until they began digging toilets-more toilets than they could possibly need-that townspeople began getting suspicious. Then came rumors they were building a giant boat to take their followers into another world, and finally one of the church leaders was seen burning a pile of personal belongings, including clothes, mattresses and pillows.
Yesterday, police following the unspeakably gruesome trail of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, whose leaders are known to have led at least 600 followers to their deaths, dug up a body at the cult's branch in this village and expected to find more in the mysterious toilet pits and beneath the newly planted fields of sugar cane and beans.
"Definitely, definitely, I'm sure there must be more bodies," said Gen. Jim Muhwezi, the parliamentary representative for the region, which includes Kanungu, where the charred remains of an estimated 500 followers were discovered March 17 locked inside a burned church. A week later, another 153 bodies-including more than 50 children-were found buried about 20 miles away in Buhunga in a cult compound, and police are searching several other sites the organization owned.
At first, officials thought the deaths were a mass suicide reminiscent of the 1978 People's Temple killings carried out by 912 followers in Guyana, because the church at Kanungu, where the cult maintained its headquarters, had its doors and window shutters nailed shut to make escape impossible. Someone poured gasoline throughout the church interior and then set a fire that quickly roared through the locked-up building. Villagers heard a loud bang as the sealed structure filled with flames and heat and eventually burst.
"We thought it was a bomb," said 12-year-old Deruevosio Turyanureba, one of those who came running up the hill to the sprawling compound. By then, he said, nearly everyone was dead except one man whose screams could be heard as he tried in vain to escape. "There were so many people burned the police just took a bulldozer and buried them all there," he said, pointing to a huge mountain of dirt on which someone had placed two bunches of flowers.
The suicide theory was scrapped after the Buhunga bodies, many of them slashed, hacked, clubbed and strangled, were found in the ground beneath a mud house by villagers digging for valuables after a huge fire at the site. "When we saw the fire, some children came running and said, 'Oh, did they leave some money there?' and they started digging in the ground, and they found the bodies," said Charles Kabazamu, whose banana plantation abuts the land on which the cult's compound sat. So deep were the bodies stacked that they could not all be pulled from the ground, so fresh dirt was simply dumped back over the mass graves and the site abandoned.
Now, officials believe the cult's leaders, whose whereabouts are unknown, systematically began murdering their followers-estimated at anywhere from 1, 000 to 5,000-after the devout became disgruntled with the spartan lives they led and began doubting their leaders' claims. Followers were forced to sell all their belongings, to hand their money over to the cult's main leaders, self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kibwetere, 68, and his assistant Gredonia Mwerinda, 40, and to live on starvation rations. Families were separated, communication with non-cult members was forbidden, and sex was outlawed.
Local residents said cult followers were a weak, hungry-looking group and that the cheery-looking school in Kanungu hadn't operated in several months. Inside the abandoned classrooms lay report cards and class programs dated in 1998. Writing scrawled on the chalkboard of one room said: "Let us kill ourselves," and "Let us go and burn."
"Anyone who was living here, even a child, was just living on one cup of porridge a day. We could see everyone living here was miserable," said Kabazamu as he roamed the now-abandoned Buhunga compound, where the smell of death still lingers. In return for such sacrifice, the followers were guaranteed a trip to heaven when the world ended at the start of 2000, as Kibwetere and Mwerinda claimed it would.
"When it didn't, they had a problem," said Muhwezi, the region's representative. "The leaders then said they had a new vision-that the world was going to end by the end of 2000, but how would they maintain all these people? That's why they decided to burn them all up."
From villagers' and police accounts, it appears cult leaders first murdered the followers and buried their bodies in cult compounds, then staged the " mass suicide" in Kanungu, possibly by herding everyone into church for supposed prayer and then trapping them inside and starting the fire. From there they returned to Buhunga and set that compound on fire to cover the murders there. If the numbers of dead found in Kanungu or Buhunga are anything to go by, police will find scores more in Bunyaruguru.
The body of a naked man was pulled yesterday from the dirt at the back of the house where the toilet digging had begun a few weeks back. "These people had been here more than eight years, and when they came they were very good people. So recently when they started to dig all these toilets I came to them and said, 'What are you doing?'" said the village chief, Gregory Katureebe, as storm clouds gave the scene an even more sinister element. "They said they were just digging toilets, but when they started to dig that big one in the back I came to stop them because there was a rumor they were going to build a boat that was going to take people to another world."
Last week, he said, two days after the Kanungu inferno, one of the cult's ministers stood over a fire in the yard of the Bunyaruguru house burning a pile of personal belongings.
Nobody knows where Kibwetere and Mwerinda are, but some theorize they escaped and are on the run, perhaps hiding with surviving followers or across the nearby Rwandan border.
The misty hills of southwestern Uganda seem an unlikely setting for such mayhem. Dubbed the Switzerland of Africa for its hills, this is a region of farming villages connected by narrow dirt roads that curve through velvety green slopes covered in banana, mango and coffee trees. But it is an area seemingly plagued by dreadful deeds. One year ago, eight foreign tourists were murdered while on a safari to view rare mountain gorillas in nearby Bwindi National Park, and six years ago an ethnically motivated genocide killed a half-million people in neighboring Rwanda.
People who lived near the cult's compounds said while the people who lived in them did not mix with other villagers, they never caused trouble. In Kanungu, the sprawling compound included a garden blooming with daisies, lilies and roses, and a school for cult followers' children. There was also a neatly tended graveyard dotted with wooden crosses.
"It's easy to see why people would not suspect them," said Muhwezi, defending officials against allegations they should have known something was wrong and rescinded the cult's authorization to operate legally. "When you look at their objectives, you couldn't deny them. They said they believed in the Ten Commandments. What's wrong with that? And where they stayed they had no problems with the local people. They paid for everything, they paid all their taxes, and they didn't bother anybody."
This is not the first religious cult to plague Uganda. In the far north of the country, government troops have been battling more than a decade the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, whose leader, Joseph Kony, claims to be a prophet who will install a rule of law based on the Ten Commandments. Leaders of another Ugandan doomsday sect, the 1,000-member World Message Last Warning, were charged with rape, kidnaping and illegal confinement when police broke it up in September.
President Yoweri Museveni on Tuesday blamed unemployment, AIDS and lack of education for the ability of cults to grow in his country, saying people with no hope were reaching for miracles. But Muhwezi said the problem also has to do with a combination of Uganda's brutal past, when dictator Idi Amin outlawed most religions, and the new freedoms ushered in by Museveni since 1986.
"Now with the new constitution, people are free to manifest any religion, and I think there are opportunists and thugs who have taken advantage of this, " he said. "Since there are people who will follow them and give them all their money, why not?"
LOAD-DATE: March 27, 2000