Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17

Eight years ago today, more than 530 people -- mostly women and children -- were burnt to death in a chapel in the remote town of Kanungu, Uganda. The victims were members of a Christian cult known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a group that had formed during the late 1980s under the leadership of a Catholic madman named Joseph Kibwetere. Kibwetere had been a prominent religious and political leader during the long years Ugandans spent under the grotesque rule of Idi Amin; when the former Ugandan president Milton Obote returned to power in 1980, Kibwetere was forced from his home district of Ntungamo.

Kibwetere eventually founded the MRTC with the assistance of several other former Catholic priests and a former prostitute and banana beer brewer named Credonia Mwerinde. After relocating several times, the group settled in Kanungu and lived communally, surviving on the revenues brought by the pineapple and banana plantations they had purchased. Together, this core group developed a sect based on what they claimed to be the true intent of the Mosaic commandments. MRTC members dressed in green, white or black robes and lived under conditions of extraordinary austerity. Kibwetere -- who claimed to have communicated directly with the Virgin Mary -- insisted that followers refrain from sex and alcohol. Fasting was a constant feature of the movement culture, and residents of the community were eventually forbidden from speaking except during prayers and song. All other communications were delivered through hand signals. By the late 1990s, anywhere from 1000-4000 people had joined the Movement for the Restoration.

No one knows whether God spoke to Kibwetere and Mwerinde through hand signals, but in 1999, the cult’s newspaper announced that a divine prophecy had been revealed to the cult’s leaders and that the world would soon be ending. Community members began disposing of their worldly possessions in preparation for the day of doom, which was verified to be December 31, 1999.

When the new year arrived with little fanfare -- and without the promised global catastrophe -- members of the cult were greatly dismayed. Two months later, as complaints mounted and dissenters roiled, a new doomsday was scheduled for sometime between March 6-18. On the 17th, hundreds of unsuspecting worshippers gathered at an old chapel, whose floors and pews had already been soaked in gasoline and sulfuric acid. After the chapel was packed to capacity, its doors and windows were locked and barred from the outside -- by whom no one has ever determined -- and the entire building set on fire. No one survived. Forensic evidence later indicated that many of the victims had been clubbed, poisoned or hacked to death before the fire began. The leaders of the MRTC are presumed to have died in the fire as well.

Over the next few weeks, hundreds of additional bodies turned up in villages and mass graves across the country. Nearly all of them had been poisoned.

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