Tragedy Unearthed

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Perhaps it was easier to come to terms with it as yet another case of suicide in which members of an obscure religious cult took their lives in the belief that the world was about to end. Horrifying, yes, but almost understandable compared to the appalling truth that has emerged in the lush green hills of southwest Uganda over the past two weeks. For what was at first thought to be suicide is now known to be murder, and every day last week brought the discovery of new mass graves, more bodies and fresh horrors for the people of Uganda. "We are reeling from shock," says the Minister of Internal Affairs, Edward Rugumayo. "We don't understand how this could happen."

The nightmare began on March 17 when at least 530 members of a cult called The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God burned to death in the cult's church near the town of Kanungu. Police called it suicide but puzzled over why the windows and all but one of the doors to the church, which had been converted into a dining hall, were nailed shut from the outside. The discovery of six strangled and mutilated bodies in a pit latrine in a nearby building confirmed their suspicions that a terrible crime had been committed.

The authorities widened their investigation and within days uncovered 153 more bodies--many of them bearing signs of strangulation and stab wounds--from two mass graves in another of the cult's compounds in Buhunga, some 50 kilometers away. Last week 155 bodies, most of them children, were found in two graves--one beneath a closet that had recently been sealed over by concrete--at the Rugazi home of cult leader Father Dominic Kataribabo, 64. A further 81 bodies were dug up in a cult compound in nearby Rushojwa, bringing the total confirmed dead to 925. "This was systematic murder," says police spokesman Eric Naigambi. "Bodies are stacked on top of each other. They're packed in like sardines."

The most likely motive for the murders is fraud. Leaders had predicted the world would end on Dec. 31 and had urged sect members to sell or give away their possessions. After Armageddon failed to arrive some followers had reportedly demanded the return of the goods and money they had given to the church. Under pressure, the leaders had rescheduled the earth's end and then, apparently, began eliminating dissenters. Officials believe they poisoned most of the dead but could have used some sort of killing squad. "The number of people killed could not have been the job of one man," says Rugumayo.

A lack of officers with relevant experience and even the most basic resources, let alone forensic investigative equipment, severely hampered the investigation. The police post closest to Kanungu, set up after last year's fatal attack on foreign tourists in nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, has no telephone, radio or car. Uganda's police force has only one pathologist. Police have even resorted to asking journalists for copies of their stories "to enrich our investigations." Says Officer Naigambi, "Our criminal investigation department is not really equipped to the level of a criminal investigation department."

Still, Ugandans want to know how so many people could disappear without anyone noticing. Last year police broke up two cults deemed dangerous and another was disbanded last Wednesday. Why didn't they stop the Kanungu cult? One reason may be that nearly all the cult members had been recruited from elsewhere and had little interaction with locals. "I believe if there had been no fire we would not have known about the other murders for a long time," says Minister Rugumayo.

A more sinister explanation is that people who did notice were silenced. President Yoweri Museveni told bbc radio that intelligence officers had reported concerns about the cult but that local administrators had "sat on" those suspicions. Last week police were talking to a presidential appointee, the assistant resident district commander, who apparently had close links with the sect. They also want to speak to foreigners who visited and may have supported the cult--Australian, Belgian, German, Italian and Spanish guests--some of whose names were in a visitors' book at the Kanungu headquarters. They believe Joseph Kibwetere, 68, a former Catholic teacher who helped form the cult 10 years ago, and co-founder Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, a former prostitute, escaped and may be hiding in Uganda or have crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Late last week, as yet another suspected mass grave was found hundreds of kilometers away from the others, further digging was suspended until international help arrives. When that happens, the gruesome search could reveal more bodies buried beneath Uganda's rich red earth.