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Ugandans Mourn Mass Murder Deaths

April 2, 2000

KANUNGU, Uganda (AP) _ Thousands of townspeople gathered on a hilltop soccer field Sunday to mourn the mass murder of neighbors they barely knew.

Dignitaries joined residents of Kanungu and nearby villages to deplore the deaths of 924 members of a reclusive Christian doomsday sect who authorities say were murdered by their leaders.

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.″

A March 17 blaze inside in 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 Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God 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.

At least one cult compound, in the remote foothills of western Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon, has yet to be searched.

Meanwhile, a former sect member said Sunday that the failure of the sect’s doomsday prediction spurred dissent and possibly murder.

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

Peter Ahimbisibwe, whose mother and sister died in the fire, said members began pressing Credonia Mwerinde, one of the movement’s founders, during worship services.

``The people who sold their property would inquire one by one. Whoever would inquire would disappear,″ said Ahimbisibwe, 17.

Ahimbisibwe also said he saw a man whom he identified only as ``Hillary″ carrying a hammer and nails early on the morning of March 17. It is partly this testimony that has persuaded authorities that windows and doors were blocked to prevent sect members from leaving the chapel before the flames killed them.

Sect members were ``always preparing″ to go to another world, Ahimbisibwe said. But they had no idea anything was about to transpire in the chapel, which police said the members had called ``the ark″ _ a reference to the wooden ship in which the biblical figure Noah was to have survived 40 days of floods that swept away unbelievers and the corrupt.

On the fateful morning, sect members marched to the chapel for prayers dressed in the sect’s uniform of green-and-white robes, Ahimbisibwe said.

Kazibwe acknowledged that Uganda’s police and intelligence agencies failed to expose the sect.

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

She was not alone in her contrition.

``How come that despite our elaborate parish network as churches, we failed to detect the fate that befell so many of our brothers, sisters and children?″ asked the Rev. Grace Kaiso, head of the Uganda Joint Christian Council.

Therese Kibwetere sat in the crowd as speakers vilified her estranged husband as a murderer. Authorities are pursuing Joseph Kibwetere, the sect’s self-described ``bishop,″ but his son Juvenal Mugambwa has said he was killed in the Kanungu fire.

Therese Kibwetere said her priest in her village of Kabumba persuaded her to attend Sunday’s ceremony. Asked if she felt she owed the victims and their relatives an apology, she demurred.

``What should I have done?″ she asked.

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