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Toward Death in Silence

Troubling Picture Emerges of Life in Uganda Cult

From Wire Reports

R U S H O J W A, Uganda, March 30 - They forbade talking, sex or even the use of soap.

But their fanatical insistence on the avoidance of sin apparently did not stop the leaders of Uganda's doomsday cult from murdering hundreds of their followers.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was led by a 68-year-old failed politician and self-styled prophet Joseph Kibwetere, who claimed to talk directly to Jesus. Associates describe him as a violent man prone to seizures.

At his side was Gredonia Mwerinda, a former prostitute who claimed to have the ear of the Virgin Mary, and "Father" Dominic Kataribabo, a former Catholic priest with a masters degree in theology and a reputation as a studious and religious man.

But Kataribabo was also a man with a dark secret.

Death in the Shadows

Police today unearthed almost 50 bodies from graves in a fourth compound connected to the Christian doomsday sect, bringing to almost 700 the estimated number of cult followers found dead.

Earlier this week, police unearthed 155 bodies from two mass graves in the former priest's house and garden. Many of the corpses in the priest's garden in Rugazi appeared to have been strangled to death in recent months.

Neighbors and relatives say they knew Kataribabo had been digging in his back garden, but never suspected the grisly purpose of his exertions.

"He was a good man, good to his followers, good to his family and good to people in general," Kataribabo's nephew Bagambe Apex said. "There is no way we ever expected something like this could happen."

His relatives say the quiet and studious priest may have fallen under the evil spell of Kibwetere and Mwerinda.

Just days before around 500 cult followers were burned to death in a church in Kanungu in southwest Uganda, Kataribabo was seen buying gallons of sulphuric acid - a chemical police suspect was used to fuel the murderous inferno.

Where he is now remains a mystery. Police initially said the 64-year-old priest's body was found among the charred corpses at Kanungu. Now they say he may have survived and be on the run with other leaders of the sect.

Chronology of Exhumations

A fire at the chapel of a doomsday sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, has revealed one of the world's largest mass murders - one that may encompass the entire nearly sect, which included some 1,000 members.

The sect had five compounds in southwestern Uganda, but police have yet to finish searching all of them.

March 17: Kahunga.: At least 330 people are burned to death after fire engulfs the chapel of a sect compound. Authorities initially called the conflagration a mass suicide, but within days, investigators discover the bodies of 78 children as well as six strangled, mutilated corpses, and begin a murder investigation. They are now treating all the deaths as homicides.

March 24: Buhunga: 153 bodies are found buried in the dirt floor of an abandoned house, 20 miles away from the cult's compound. The bodies include 59 children and appear to have been hacked and strangled, police say.

March 27-29: Rugazi: 155 strangled, mutilated bodies are found on property belonging to 'Father' Dominic Kataribabo, one of the sect's leaders. Some are found in a pit in a sugar cane field, others discovered crammed limb across limb beneath the concrete floor of a house.

March 30: Rushojwa: Another 81 corpses are excavated at the fourth of five cult compounds.

'Cult of Satan'

Life within the movement consisted of a strict regime enforced by Kibwetere and his associates, according to former sect followers.

Men and women, even if they were married, were forbidden from meeting except at prayer time. Followers were not allowed to speak and instead had to communicate by gestures.

Soap was banned and cultists were forced to bathe with washing powder meant for clothes.

Followers had a spartan, highly regulated lifestyle with most of the day spent in manual labor or praying. Former members say they were woken at 3 a.m. to pray for an hour, and were forced to fast twice a week.

Not surprisingly, they had little contact with locals. Even so, some villagers began to resent their fanatical neighbors.

"As time went on we started getting more and more scared of them," said Kisembo Didas, a farmer in Rugazi. "We thought they were dangerous, a cult of Satan. They used to behave abnormally, suddenly becoming paralyzed in the street and then talking nonsense."

In their latest search for victims, police were concentrating on a hilltop village in southwestern Uganda where a neighbor said people would regularly "vanish." Kensi Ntuaydubale, who lives very near the sect compound - a cluster of four simple buildings with tin roofs and almost nothing inside them - said that locals had long worried about what was happening there.

"Groups used to come from different areas and after some days they'd vanish," he said, adding that it was general knowledge within the village that "many people" had died. Others, however, thought people were dying of illnesses.

"People would die but no one would call their neighbors to help them," he said. Funeral rites are normally communal in Uganda, with the entire community joining in. The dead are normally buried in their family compounds.

Things Fall Apart

Discipline within the cult seems to have begun breaking down when Doomsday did not arrive last year, as Kibwetere had said.

Some cult members, who had been asked to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the church, appeared to have started asking for their money back - a possible motive for the mass killings.

Father Paul Ikazire said he was among the sect's leaders before leaving in 1994. He described Kibwetere as a violent-tempered man who often had seizures, but said the real power behind the throne was Gredonia Mwerinda.

"She used to bring in messages from the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Michael," Ikazire said. "She would come in and say things like the Virgin Mary wants you to bring more money."

Sidebar - Accused Allegedly Supressed Report

Ugandan authorities say they have arrested a local government official for suspected links with the cult, after President Yoweri Museveni last week ordered an inquiry into reports that local administrators ignored warnings about the cult.

Internal Affairs Minister Edward Rugumayo said police had arrested the Rev. Amooti Mutazindwa, an assistant district commissioner in southwest Uganda, for allegedly suppressing an intelligence report that suggested the cult posed a security threat.

"Some intelligence officers filed reports saying that this is a dangerous group but at one level it was not forwarded, it was just ignored," Museveni told the BBC late on Wednesday during a visit to Britain.

Although he is not a leading suspect - police have asked Interpol to issue arrest warrants for four cult leaders they believe are on the run - Mutazindwa is the first person to be arrested in connection with the killings.

"I am hearing he himself (Mutazindwa) may be a member of that group, although he is reverend himself," Museveni said last Thursday.

In an interview broadcast today from London, Museveni also accused other district and regional officials in general of suppressing intelligence reports on the activities of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

Kensi Ntuaydubale, who lives very near the sect compound being investigated today, said police had been called to the compound at least twice, but that after an investigation late last year the compound was left alone.

Museveni, in his comments to the BBC, said intelligence officers had filed reports on the Ten Commandments sect, but that regional officials "sat on" the reports.

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