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Uganda’s Kanungu cult bloodbath that killed 700 followers

The four cult leadersImage copyright .
Image caption Twenty years on, the whereabouts of (from L to R) Ursula Komuhangi, Credonia Mwerinde, Joseph Kibwetere and Dominic Kataribabo are unknown

Judith Ariho doesn’t shed any tears as she remembers the church bloodbath during which her mom, two siblings and 4 different family members have been amongst not less than 700 individuals who died.

Exactly 20 years in the past, in south-western Uganda’s Kanungu district, they have been locked inside a church, with the doorways and home windows nailed shut from the surface. It was then set alight.

Two many years on, the horror of the occasion continues to be an excessive amount of for Ms Ariho, who seems to solely be capable of deal with the trauma by closing herself off from the emotion.

Image caption This nonetheless from archive footage exhibits the ruins of the church within the wake of the hearth

The useless have been members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God – a doomsday cult that believed the world would come to an finish on the flip of the millennium.

“The end of present times”, as considered one of its books phrased it, got here two-and-a-half months later, on 17 March 2000.

Twenty years later, no-one has been prosecuted in reference to the bloodbath and the cult leaders, if they’re alive, have by no means been discovered.

Woman with a headscarf


Everything was coated in smoke, soot and the stench of burnt flesh. It appeared to go proper to your lungs”

Anna Kabeireho, who still lives on a hillside that overlooks the land that the cult owned, has not forgotten the smell that engulfed the valley that Friday morning.

“Everything was coated in smoke, soot and the stench of burnt flesh. It appeared to go proper to your lungs,” she recalls.

“Everybody was operating into the valley. The hearth was nonetheless going. There have been dozens of our bodies, burnt past recognition.

“We covered our noses with aromatic leaves to ward off the smell. For several months afterwards, we could not eat meat.”

Kanungu is a fertile and peaceable area of inexperienced hills and deep valleys, coated in small farms damaged up by homesteads.

Image copyright BBC/Patience Atuhaire

The journey down into the valley that was as soon as the headquarters of the Movement needs to be taken by foot.

From down there, it’s straightforward to see how the spiritual group would have maintained their lives away from the eyes of neighbours.

Birdsong bounces off the hills and there’s the sound of a waterfall within the close to distance. It is the perfect setting for a contemplative existence.

But nothing stays of the constructing that was doused in petrol and set alight. At the sting of the spot the place it stood is an extended mound of soil, the one marker for the mass grave during which the stays from the inferno have been buried.

Defrocked clergymen and nuns

The devoted had been drawn by the charismatic leaders Credonia Mwerinde, a former bartender and intercourse employee, and ex-government worker Joseph Kibwetere, who stated that they’d had visions of the Virgin Mary within the 1980s.

They registered the Movement as a gaggle whose purpose was to obey the Ten Commandments and preach the phrase of Jesus Christ.

Christian icons have been outstanding within the Movement’s compound and the cult had tenuous hyperlinks to Roman Catholicism with its management dominated by plenty of defrocked clergymen and nuns, together with Ursula Komuhangi and Dominic Kataribabo.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Christian iconography was present in one of many compound’s buildings after the hearth

Believers lived largely in silence, sometimes utilizing indicators to speak.

Questions can be despatched to Mwerinde in writing. Known as “the programmer”, she is claimed to have been the mastermind behind how the institution run, and would write again with solutions.

Ms Ariho, 41, joined the Movement together with her household when she was 10.

Her widowed mom was struggling to lift three kids, considered one of whom suffered from persistent complications. Kibwetere’s group supplied prayer and a way of belonging, she says.

The self-sustaining group would absorb complete households, offering for his or her each want. The members grew their very own meals, ran colleges, and used their abilities to contribute labour.

Portrait of a woman's head and shoulders


We did every little thing doable to keep away from sin. Sometimes, for those who sinned, they’d command you to recite the rosary 1,000 occasions”

Ms Ariho’s family hosted a branch of the church with about 100 members in their compound, 2km (1.2 miles) outside the town of Rukungiri.

“Life rotated round prayer, though we additionally farmed,” she says.

“We did every little thing doable to keep away from sin. Sometimes, for those who sinned, they’d command you to recite the rosary [an entreaty to God] 1,000 occasions.

“You had to do it, and also ask friends and family to help, until you had served your punishment.”

Devotion to the Movement usually concerned pilgrimage to a steep, rocky hill close by. After a troublesome hike by way of a eucalyptus forest, hanging onto rocks and grabbing at tufts of grass, the devoted would attain a rock that they believed depicted the Virgin Mary.

Image copyright BBC/Patience Atuhaire
Image caption Followers of the Movement believed that this rock resembled the Virgin Mary

As we stroll by way of her village, she factors to the homesteads of the speedy neighbours. “Over there, they lost a mother and her 11 children, and in that home, a mother and her eight children died too,” she says, shifting her gaze to the bottom.

Ms Ariho had not travelled to Kanungu as by 2000 she had married right into a household who weren’t a part of the Movement.

But she remembers that the leaders had an omniscient grip on the devoted, saying that Mwerinde and Komuhangi appeared to pay attention to each sin that had been dedicated within the far-flung shops of the church.

When a follower broke the foundations, the 2 girls would shed tears of blood, she says.

But it seems that the cult leaders could have additionally engaged in homicide and torture earlier than the ultimate bloodbath.

In Kanungu, there are quite a few extensive and deep pits the place dozens of our bodies, thought to have been dumped over a number of years, have been retrieved days after the blaze.

At the again of what looks as if a ruined workplace constructing are two extra pits, stated to have been torture chambers. Pits have been additionally discovered close to different branches of the church.

What turned extraordinary members of society into murderous cult leaders continues to be not clear.

Before his apparitions, Kibwetere had been a profitable man, and an everyday member of the Roman Catholic group.

How the BBC reported on the bloodbath

Topher Shemereza, now an area authorities official, noticed him as a father determine.

“He was an upright member of the community and a shrewd businessman. I did not have a job when I finished university, so he offered me a deal to transport local moonshine, which we sold in the neighbouring districts,” he explains.

A number of years on, Kibwetere knowledgeable his protégé that he would not promote alcohol. The older man and his fellow cult leaders spent a fortnight in Mr Shemereza’s government-issued home proper up till the evening they set off for Kanungu, the place they’d set up the Movement’s headquarters.

“That was the last time I ever saw him. The man I knew was not a murderer. Something must have changed in him,” he says.

Image copyright BBC/Patience Atuhaire
Image caption The stays of a few of the Movement’s buildings can nonetheless be seen

After the Movement’s basis, phrase of Kibwetere and his faith unfold throughout south-west Uganda and past.

The group was not closed off from the remainder of society, and several other individuals in positions of authority – together with policemen and native authorities officers – have been conscious of its actions. But little motion was taken in opposition to the cult earlier than the inferno.

Although Interpol issued notices for the arrest of six cult leaders in April 2000, it’s nonetheless not identified if any of them died within the hearth or whether or not they’re dwelling in hiding.

A 2014 Uganda police report indicated that Kibwetere could have fled the nation. But others doubt that he was nicely sufficient to do that.

No memorial

Spiritual actions that bear the hallmarks of the Kanungu cult, the place devotees unquestioningly imagine their pastors can resurrect the useless or that holy water will heal illnesses, have continued to emerge throughout the continent.



The Kanungu cult identified the evils of the time… and preached a renewal or re-commitment to the religion”

Their appeal is clear, according to Dr Paddy Musana of Makerere University’s Department of Religion and Peace Studies.

“When there’s pressure or a necessity which can’t be simply met by present establishments like conventional faiths or authorities, and somebody emerges claiming to have an answer, 1000’s will rally round them,” he tells the BBC.

“The Kanungu cult identified the evils of the time… and preached a renewal or re-commitment to the religion.”

Dr Musana adds that one need not look too far to find a similar thread in the messages of today’s self-proclaimed prophets.

“The ‘Jesus business’ has turn into an funding enterprise. Today’s preachers speak about well being and wellness, due to the quite a few ailments, and a public well being system that hardly features,” says the academic.

He argues that the government needs to do more in overseeing these spiritual movements.

Two decades on, the 48-acre plot at Kanungu is now being used as a tea plantation, but local businessman Benon Byaruhanga says he has plans to turn parts of it into a memorial.

So far, the dead at Kanungu have never been officially remembered. Those who lost family members have never got any answers.

“We pray for our individuals on our personal. We bear our ache in silence,” Ms Ariho says, reflecting on the deaths of her mom and siblings.

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