With the government not doing much, the Uganda Human Rights Commission took it upon itself to investigate the Kanungu cult.Their team, which was headed by Constantine Karusoke, a commissioner, interviewed former members of the cult, their neighbours and friends, as well as religious and political leaders in areas where the cult operated. In its 84-page report which The Weekly Observer has seen, the Uganda Human Rights Commission says that the cult was registered as an NGO on December 18, 1998 having been seconded by the then Rukungiri RDC, Kitaka Gawera.
The report urged the government to investigate further why Kitaka fraternised with the cult leadership “to the extent that he laid a foundation stone on one of their buildings not withstanding his predecessor’s letter to the NGO Registration Board advising against the registration of the cult.”
Gawera’s predecessor, K.K. Kamacerere, had on November 7, 1994 written to the NGO Board, Ministry of Internal Affairs, advising against registering the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
“After consulting the chairman of the District Resistance Council, Rukungiri, I have been duly advised that the services of this religious cult aren’t required in this district. I am therefore unable to recommend the NGO for licensing to operate in this district.”
The Commission’s report also urged government to “thoroughly investigate and establish the true facts surrounding the relations between Rev. Y. Mutazindwa Amooti, then A/RDC in charge of Kanungu sub-district, and the cult leaders.”
Quoting Police and intelligence sources in Rukungiri, the Uganda Human Rights Commission said in its report that the cult started in 1980 when a woman named Bladina Busingye claimed she had had a vision from the Blessed Virgin Mary telling her about the end of the world in 2000. The cult’s name and doctrine were derived from this alleged vision.
“The vision instructed her to form a movement for the restoration of the Ten Commandments to prepare its followers for admission into heaven,” says the report.
As news of the “end of the world” and Bladina Busingye’s vision spread, people started gathering at Nyabugoto rock in Rubabo County, Rukungiri district, where she had got her revelation. Among these was a woman named Credonia Mwerinde.
Uganda Human Rights Commission reports that the Nyabugoto pilgrims “tried to establish a permanent camp at Nyabugoto rock but met hostile resistance from the area residents.”
The locals even rejected wishes by the cult leaders to purchase land for their church from them. Still, the cult grew in numbers. By 1988, it had followers from as far as Buganda.
Joseph Kibwetere, Fr. Dominic Kataribabo and Fr. Joseph Kasapurari joined the cult in 1989, apparently on Credonia Mwerinde’s persuasion.
As they had not established their permanent home in Kanungu, these leaders provided accommodation for their growing number of followers at their homes in different places. This is how Buziga and Bushenyi turned into mass grave sites.
Mwerinde was the most powerful person in the cult but Kibwetere was used as its face because he was a more prominent personality in the region.
A trained primary school teacher, Kibwetere was Assistant Supervisor of Schools in Mbarara Catholic Diocese.
He was a member of the Uganda Land Commission in the 1970s and Chairman of the Public Service Commission in Ankole Kingdom during its monarchy days. He had had a short stint in politics in the 1960s and in 1980 as a DP sympathiser.
Kibwetere’s ascendance to the cult’s leadership could also have stemmed from Credonia’s background. “Credonia was a prostitute who used to sell tonto (banana brew) in Kanungu. She had been married five times to different men,” says the report.
According to the cult’s Memorandum of Association, its formation was ordered by “Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, the Queen of heaven and earth, the mother of God.”
Accordingly, leaders of the movement; like the Chairman, Vice Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, Publicity Secretary and Committee members, were all chosen by Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The cult’s executive council was to remain in office unless it violated God’s commandments. The Chairman’s mandate included receiving messages from Jesus. Through the Vice Chairman, heavenly programmes were communicated to cult members.
The Vice Secretary recorded messages from heaven while the publicity secretary communicated the heavenly messages obtained through the relevant people. The messages were at times transmitted through compact cassettes to members who were absent when they were delivered.
Talking is evil
The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God barred talking among its members.
“The rule that ranks first of all the rules that we have received from our Lord Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary his mother is the rule of silence,” reads their memorandum.
It added: “We are obliged to keep silent, except when we are instructing people, praying or singing, but we can speak when there is a genuine reason to make us do so.”
They believed silence maintained harmony and minimised sin.
“Conversations lead many into telling lies about their neighbours thus bringing about misunderstandings that make people end up in-fighting and disrupting the peace and order of the community.”
Those who kept silent would apparently hear from the Blessed Virgin Mary while those who spoke got Satan’s voice.
By silencing their followers, the report says cult leaders concealed atrocities committed at night, like killing and burying people as members wouldn’t talk about them. This practice also insulated cult leaders from embarrassing or uncomfortable questions from some doubting Thomases in the organisation.
Members were instructed to sell all their personal property and surrender the proceeds to the cult to be shared with others. “Blessed Virgin Mary would refund the money from the sale of the member’s properties,” they were told.
The report volunteers that this was meant to impoverish and enslave the cult followers, making it difficult or impossible for them to quit.
Some members either could not cope with the demands or got suspicious of the leadership’s intentions.
Among these was Kibwetere’s own wife, Tereza.
She quit the cult in 1992 after Kibwetere started selling family property and surrendering all proceeds to the organisation.
Mwerinde had also ordered the burning of her clothes. When Tereza complained, the report says, Mwerinde told her: “Fire had come from heaven and burnt them.”
It was common for the leaders to burn some members’ property. When this happened, they said the concerned individuals had been sinful and God had punished them for it.
So, how did a cult with such harsh and suspicious rules of engagement attract and retain followers? It would appear that their message of fear – fear of doomsday – kept their followers at their best behaviour.
The report quotes Martino Nuwagaba, a former preacher in the cult, as saying that as far back as 1992, they were preaching about doomsday snakes which would be as big as wheels of tractors. They also used to tell their congregations that on doomsday big blocks of cement would fall from heaven to crush the sinners. This would be followed by three days of consecutive darkness worldwide. Only their camps would be safe havens.
They told their followers that when this happens, whatever remains on earth would be theirs alone and that they would start communicating with Jesus Christ directly.
Followers believed this and they counted themselves lucky. They wouldn’t question anything as this would be disobeying God.
“All programmes of activities were taken as instructions from the Blessed Virgin Mary passed on to believers through cult leaders,” said the former preacher.
Cult leaders were also law abiding and friendly. They participated in community work and were generous, which shielded them suspicion.
For instance, Dominic Kataribabo, the report says, used to provide soil (murram) to fill the potholes on feeder roads in the community. He was seen as a friendly, good natured priest. Because of this perception, people didn’t ever bother to question where the murram was coming from. It was from the graves which he and his followers were digging in their compound to bury the dead, often at night.
Sex was forbidden among cult members, even those who were married. Those caught in the act would be severely beaten.
However, cult leaders never practised what they preached.
Nuwagaba says in the report that one day he found Kibwetere and Credonia in bed. He had gone to wake them up for morning prayers.
Other deprivations included fasting on Mondays and Fridays by all cult followers.
So did the people who died have knowledge of their impending demise?
It seems yes. The report carries a letter one Lt. Eric Baryaruha wrote, bidding his brother farewell ten days before the inferno.
“As we follow directives from heaven, we are supposed to gather in the selected area before the wrath of the almighty God the creator is let down on to non-repentants,” Baryaruha wrote. “Keep my words on your heart, that there will never be the year 2001. Catastrophes will befall human kind and all the indicators of such will be wars, crime increase such as murder, rape, robbery…”
Perhaps to underline the government’s indifference, the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Dr. Rugunda, confessed he knew nothing about the Human Rights Commission’s report when asked. Yet this is so far the most extensive report on the tragedy that shook not only Uganda but the world. Without government interest, we might never get the full story.
Uganda Human Rights Commission probe team