More than 200 Ugandan sect members die in church fire

 

The faithful of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments sect lay piled on top of one another on the floor of their church in this remote corner of Uganda near the Rwandan border.

The corpses of men, women and children were stacked up, a grizzly heap of bones and melted flesh. Some were hunched into a tight ball of pain, others lay on their backs, hands facing the sky.

None were recognisable.

A heart-shaped plaque sprinkled with shards of glass lay on the ground outside. The inscription read: "Waiting for Jesus".

The members of the sect, nearly all former Catholics, had twice been told that the world would end and their devotion to the Virgin Mary would be rewarded in heaven.

Last Friday the congregation, estimated to number at least 240, had a final feast followed by hours of singing and chanting. Then they were doused in petrol and died a gruesome death inside a sealed church in Kanungu.

Their numbers are only estimates, as the bodies have yet to be moved, but local officials say the death toll may be much higher. The skeletons of dozens of children were among the dead.

As forensic police arrived from the capital, Kampala, it is still unclear whether this was mass suicide or mass murder. Many local people believe the followers were misled and then killed by their leaders.

The doors of the makeshift church, measuring 40 metres by 10, were locked and the windows were nailed from the outside. Most of the people burnt to death in front of the door as they appeared to attempt to escape.

Rutemba Didis was one of the first to come on the scene. From his house he heard the explosion as the force of the blaze burst through the windows and collapsed the galvanised iron roof.

"I think the followers didn't know what was going to happen to them. I am certain it was planned by their leaders," he said.

The toilets in the washrooms had been removed and the cavities were filled with fresh concrete. There was a strong smell, possibly of rotting flesh.

The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was led by self-styled prophet and former political activist Joseph Kibwetere and three former Catholic priests.

Appearances by the Virgin Mary were at the heart of the sect's belief structure.

"The Ten Commandments have been distorted. We are putting them right," a teacher with the sect told a Ugandan newspaper last May.

Sect members were under orders to keep to themselves, according to locals. They were encouraged to sell all their belongings, and move to the hilltop compound of rough buildings shaped to resemble Noah's Ark.

Their only contact with outsiders was to shop for groceries or through the sale of the crafts and beverages they produced.

The women, some of whom were pregnant, refused to speak when they came to the local health clinic, according to Nurse Rose Birungi. "By that time they were not allowed to talk. We had to force them to tell us what was wrong." Some had separated from their husbands, who were non-believers, and brought their children to live with them, she said.

Many of the women were drawn in by a female leader named Credoria Mwerid. She was a "mature woman in her 40s who did not appear to be married", said Birungi.

Sceptics were converted using a tape which, it was claimed, was recorded in 1989 during one of the Virgin Mary's visitations. It was played to Sister Stella Maris, a local Catholic nun.

"A voice said: `I see that the world is suffering. Now I want to come down and restore the Ten Commandments," said Sister Stella outside the church.

The leader, Kibwetere, first predicted the end of the world for January 16th, 1990. Then he predicted it would end on January 31st last.

For at least 200 people he finally made it end last Saturday.

If Ugandan investigators determine that the sect's followers allowed themselves to burn to death, it would be the second-largest mass suicide ever.

The largest took place in Guyana in 1978 when a US pastor, Rev Jim Jones, led 914 followers to death by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink.