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Ex-Uganda Sect Member Speaks Out

April 3, 2000

KANUNGU, Uganda (AP) _ The unfulfilled prophecy of a Christian doomsday sect cost the faith of loyal followers, and perhaps their lives, as they started to challenge the cult’s leaders, a surviving 17-year-old cult member said.

Peter Ahimbisibwe’s allegation came Sunday as dignitaries joined residents of Kanungu and nearby villages in southwestern Uganda. They condemned the deaths of 924 members of the reclusive sect who authorities say were killed by their leaders.

Until Sunday, no sect member, past or present, had confirmed the common belief here: The failure of the world to end Dec. 31 led members to demand belongings they had surrendered to join the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God _ a challenge that allegedly led to retaliation by sect leaders.

A March 17 blaze inside the chapel of the sect’s secretive compound in Kanungu burned 530 sect members alive. Authorities initially termed the deaths a mass suicide, but the discovery of the bodies of six slain men in a compound latrine soon shifted that assessment to murder.

Since then, mass graves at three other compounds linked to the cult have yielded 388 more bodies, many stabbed and strangled. The pungent scent of rotting bodies emanating Sunday from a latrine in the main Kanungu compound suggested the toll could still rise.

Today, police investigators were headed to a fifth sect site to search for more bodies and clues.

The site was just outside the capital, Kampala, far from the southwestern villages of the other sect bases. Police spokesman Assuman Mugenyi said the site was a home used by cult followers.

Also today, mental health officials in Kampala were putting together a crisis intervention team to travel to the sect’s home of Kanungu, James Walugembe of the Mental Health Ministry said.

``Nothing like this has ever happened before,″ Walugembe said. ``People are shattered, really shattered.″

Ahimbisibwe, whose mother and sister died in the fire two weeks ago, said sect members began pressing Credonia Mwerinde, a movement founder who was known as ``The Programmer,″ about the fate of their property during worship services.

``The people who sold their property would inquire one-by-one. Whoever would inquire would disappear,″ Ahimbisibwe told reporters in Kanungu on Sunday for a government-convened prayer service for the victims.

Ahimbisibwe survived March 17 only because he became hungry during what would be the last of the sect’s frequent fasts, and slipped away to eat at his father’s house, he said.

Ahimbisibwe also said he saw a man carrying a hammer and nails early March 17. It is partly this testimony, authorities say, that has persuaded them that windows and doors were blocked to prevent sect members from leaving the chapel before the flames erupted _ or fleeing afterward.

Sect members were ``always preparing″ to go to another world, Ahimbisibwe said. But when they entered the chapel that morning for prayers dressed in the sect’s uniform of green-and-white robes, they had no idea of what was about to happen, he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of townspeople gathered on a hilltop soccer field Sunday to mourn the neighbors they barely knew.

Ugandan Vice President Speciosa Kazibwe called the architects of the deadliest cult tragedy in modern history ``diabolic, malevolent criminals masquerading as holy and religious people.″

During the memorial service, Kazibwe acknowledged the failure of the country’s police and intelligence agencies to expose sect.

``Through deception and conspiracy, these criminals outwitted the security network (and) exploited the ignorance and illiteracy of thousands,″ she said, adding that the government planned to convene an interagency group to study the country’s cults.

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