Twenty years ago, the leaders of a religious cult in Uganda locked their followers inside a church, nailed the doors and windows shut from outside and doused the building with petrol, burning to death more 700 people including women and children.
The dead were all members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God – a doomsday cult that believed the world would come to an end at the turn of the millennium. The church was setup in south-western Uganda’s Kanungu district.
“The end of present times”, as one of its books phrased it, came two-and-a-half months later, on 17 March 2000.
Twenty years later, no-one has been prosecuted in connection with the massacre and the cult leaders, if they are alive, have never been found.
The leader of the cult, Credonia Mwerinde, was a former bartender and sex worker, and supported by ex-government employee Joseph Kibwetere, who said that they had had visions of the Virgin Mary in the 1980s.
They registered the group with the aim of ‘restoring the 10 commandments of God’, and to preach Jesus Christ.
The cult had close ties to Catholicism with their compound decorated with idols similar to those found in catholic churches. Many of their leaders were former catholic church priests who had fallen out with their mother church. Notable ones included Ursula Komuhangi and Dominic Kataribabo.
Devotion to the Movement regularly involved pilgrimage to a steep, rocky hill nearby. After a tough hike through a eucalyptus forest, hanging onto rocks and grabbing at tufts of grass, the faithful would reach a rock that they believed depicted the Virgin Mary.
According to investigations from survivors, the cult would enforce strict measures against members who sinned. They would be required to recite several times the hail Mary invocation. Depending with the sin, some would be punished by the church, and police did find two pits that were used as torture chambers.
After the massacre, several other pits were dug up and bodies recovered, leading investigators to believe the cult may have killed people and buried them in these pits long before the massacre.
Although Interpol issued notices for the arrest of six cult leaders in April 2000, it is still not known if any of them died in the fire or whether they are living in hiding. A 2014 Uganda police report indicated that Kibwetere may have fled the country. But others doubt that he was well enough to do this.