In the name of Mary

The Guardian, April 21, 2000
By Giles Foden

The horrific task of exhuming the hundreds of victims of Uganda's cult massacre may have halted, yet still no one can explain why it happened. As the hunt for the killers continues, Giles Foden, author of an award-winning book on Idi Amin, travels to Kanungu in search of the truth.

It's quiet at Kanungu now. The pathologists have departed. The bodies are under the iron-red soil. The bulldozer that shifted them is parked on a lawn in the middle of the town. A few kids hang round the shell of the burned building. On the wall of a dormitory nearby hangs a notice hand-written in felt-tip and Sellotaped to a shutter: "HEALTH HAZARD".

The writing is already faded, and its warning - more bodies are thought to be buried in a second pit latrine inside - has no effect on the children who caper round the place. They are all too eager to show visitors an old basin in which, resting on ash and badly charred, lie a few sacramental objects: a rusty crucifix, a couple of metal vessels for communion wine.

The complex of concrete buildings is both inside this small Ugandan town and not. Overlooked from all sides - by the dominating building of the mainstream Catholic church, by a local authority office, by a number of private houses - it is nonetheless delimited, something apart: a carefully chosen place for a mass murder. "I remember going back home in '98," says Robert Kabushenga, a lawyer, "and seeing the place being built - some kind of island. Even then, everyone was dismissing that group as weird."

The policeman guarding the former headquarters of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God doesn't emerge from his booth.

There is a rumour that Scotland Yard is coming here to probe the case. The Red Cross, too, they say, is on its way to help excavate the rest of the bodies, here and in the compounds of other sites owned by the cult.

The townsfolk themselves are trying to get back to normal. Today is Saturday, market day. People are moving about amongst the stalls, looking at the produce of the fertile but overpopulated hills that surround this remote place: matooke (green banana), cassava, millet.

"Some time has passed now," says Victor Kakombe, a 51-year-old farmer. "We still feel bad. We are thinking. But what can we think? The people are dead."

The number of dead and the facts surrounding their demise are still a matter of dispute. New developments include the discovery of documentary evidence of a link between the Kanungu cult and an Australian doomsday group whose leader came to Uganda in 1989.

The narrative of the discovery of the bodies is as follows. At Kanungu on Friday March 17, 330 people were confirmed dead in the ashes of a huge fire, though as many as 500 may have perished: it was impossible to disentangle some of the heat-fused bodies. A few days later, six mutilated bodies were discovered in a latrine. The following Friday, police found 153 more in three graves 40km away, in a house used by the cult.

On Sunday, police went to another site, north of the village of Rugazi, and found a mass grave in the garden containing 74 bodies. On Tuesday, 81 more were found inside the house. On Thursday, at yet another site, more bodies were found, bringing the total of confirmed dead to 725. Police believe the final figure could be several hundred higher.

Early pathologists' reports indicate that the victims may have been drugged or poisoned before being strangled with a fibre rope made of banana leaves. All seem likely to have been killed in the two weeks leading up to the fire in Kanungu. The killings were highly organised. It is probable they were carried out at night, during what locals believed were prayer meetings.

That the cult managed to achieve this efficient disposal is perhaps the most surprising thing about the case, given the logistics involved. "The problem is that most of the witnesses are dead," says Detective Superintendent Terence Kinyera, head of regional CID. "But I am sure that to do all this there must have been a middle cadre, or several, who were then killed in the Kanungu fire."

He rejects outright the notion that any of the deaths were willing suicides of the devoted. "Suicide is very un-African. And if it ever does happen, our way is by hanging. No, this was a murder."

Warrants have been issued for the arrest of six cult leaders, including ringleaders Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde, and Father Dominic Kataribabo.

I visit the Rugazi site, home of Father Dominic. It is the rainy season in Uganda, and purple stormclouds hang above nearby Lake Kukutote. The lake's name means "that which can eat you". "All people fear that place," says a local. "You can be lost there." The verb "eat" has deep resonance in African English: it can mean to take money corruptly, it can mean to kill, it can mean to do something monstrous. The Kanungu cult was all these things and more.

Up at Father Dominic's imposing house, the smell is bad. It takes a little time, as you look about, to realise you are standing on the soil where the bodies have been reburied. There are banana plantations all around. I think of Churchill's remark about Uganda being a paradise, the much-quoted "Pearl of Africa". No one ever quotes the next bit - about paradises being rotten beneath the surface.

John Bosco, a digger, is bitter about Father Dominic. "That man came here and deceived us. He said, what you do, you sell your things and come. And we die here. You go to heaven. So now people are getting angry and are fearing to go to church."

So why didn't they stop him at the time? "They were very clever, they took people from other places and brought them here. Nobody knew. Though we heard the engines of the pick-ups bring them, we thought they were just praying." As locals count the cost of the tragedy, back in Uganda's capital Kampala, accountant Gervase Ndyanabo is weighing up more personal figures. He remembers an outstanding man, his former headmaster at Mbarara seminary. "He came here last year - he sat in that chair. It still shocks me. He was so humble, so peaceful. You couldn't see him as the kind of person that would be associated with this sort of thing... it is so difficult for those of us who knew Father Dominic. Something terrible must have happened inside him."

Father Dominic's role in the cult is generally put down to disappointment that he had not been promoted within the Catholic establishment. Along with many observers, Ndyanabo believes it was Credonia who was the "evil genius" behind the operation. "That woman, Credonia, she was a crook. I can't put her and him in the same bracket."

As we talk, Ndyanabo reaches down into his desk drawer and pulls out a red book. It is the cult's manifesto, A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times, which gives details of the prophetic communications that its leading members claimed to receive from the Virgin Mary and other heavenly beings. It was these "messages" which supported the cult's prohibitions (including sex, cosmetics and conversation), its warnings of millennial apocalypse and its attacks on the official Catholic church, from whose disgruntled members it drew many of its followers.

"This is not an ordinary thing," says Ndyanabo as he leafs through the book's pages. "You don't meet this every day."

Mainstream, evangelical, New Pentecostal and independent churches flourish in Uganda. So do cults, several of them based around purported apparitions of the Virgin Mary. In this region, the specifically African dimension of Marian visions seems to have begun in Rwanda, with a visionary whom at least two of the Kanungu cult leaders visited.

It is still not quite clear why Marian apparitions should have become such a feature of Ugandan and Rwandan religion. Ugandans reject as glib the explanation that the reason lies in the traumatic legacy of widespread Aids and armed conflict, including the two decades of chaos that followed the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. They also question easy links to the bloody history of early Christianity in the country.

Writer David Kaita is one of those who refuses to see what is happening as a uniquely Ugandan phenomenon. "Cults are happening in many African countries, and in many European ones too. Our own history might be littered with death, but this martyrs-Amin-Aids-cults argument is nonsense."

The reference is to Uganda's Christian martyrs, executed for their faith by the Buganda king Mwanga II between 1885 and 1887. Ugandans supporting Catholic and Protestant missionaries fought pitched battles with each other throughout the late 1800s, and other Ugandans fought both groups. From time to time, the missionaries would be expelled from the central Buganda region.

Then they would head for the southern shores of Lake Victoria and further west too, towards Mbarara and the Congo border, where this cult took root.

There is a history of spirit possession in the area. But established religion and wayward offshoots of it are far more powerful than any remnants of African animism. "Religion in south-west Uganda is very, very important," says Kabushenga. "People will even vote for someone according to their religion. To this day, people's first experience of modern life will be through religion. They will go to school through the church, they will learn to read through the church."

In such situations, argues Kabushenga, "When you have a lot of poverty, conflict, and hopelessness and a background of religious belief... you will have people who are easily manipulated. It's not just doomsday cults either. Politicians and businessmen are doing it too. And it can happen in your own society also."

Kabushenga is an educated man. But even those who lived in the rural areas from which the cult drew most of its support feel they were manipulated - none more so than Juvenal Rugambwa, son of cult leader Joseph Kibwetere.

"Everything went wrong when those women [Credonia and her acolytes] came to live in our house. They all pretended to have visions. All they wanted was power. And to dress nicely and eat nicely."

Credonia - who used to run several notorious "bedroom bars" in the area - clearly had a deleterious effect on Rugambwa's father. She caused him to fall out with his wife Teresa, up till then a member of the group, and eventually provoked the cult's expulsion from the house by the rest of the family in 1989.

By then, up to 60 children were living in the outhouses there, in appalling conditions. "I used to try to give them biscuits, but they'd just do this," says Rugambwa, making a devil's-horn sign above his head. His attempts to expose the cult came to nothing, he says, "because the local council leader did not believe me".

Teresa Kibwetere comes out to join us, a tired, weak-minded old woman. It is she who gives me the documents linking the Kanungu doomsday group to its Australian counterpart, led by self-styled seer Little Pebble, aka William Kamm. "We were interested in visions of His Blessed Mother. Little Pebble sent us these papers and I used to write to him. Then he came to Uganda and we went to see him in Kampala."

Even though she fell out with Credonia, Teresa Kibwetere says she still believes in some of her prophecies. This annoys her son, who had to fight hard to expel the cultists from their house (from where they went to Kanungu). Most of his ire is reserved for Credonia. "But I also blame my father. He knew what was going on. There is no reason to pity him."

It is a sad business and, at bottom, a criminal rather than spiritual one. This is the drift of the Catholic archbishop's speech at the packed Sunday service in Mbarara. Afterwards, as all stream out, the citizenry of Mbarara solemn and respectful, the children skipping about in the sunlight, and the bells pealing above, the horrors of Kanungu and the other sites seem to be things of an utterly different order. They weren't, not at all. But nor were they an expression of the soul of Uganda, if such a thing could be thought to exist. For as well as the dark places, the habitations of cruelty, there is much joy here, much ordinary human kindness.

Giles Foden's novel about Uganda, The Last King of Scotland, is published by Faber and Faber

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