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Uganda: Mass Suicide Of Sect Shocks

By Villu Arak and Tuck Wesolowsky

The apparent mass suicide of up to 500 members of a doomsday cult in Uganda has shocked the country -- and much of the world. Correspondents Villu Arak and Tuck Wesolowsky report.

Prague, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The discovery over the past weekend of what appears to be a mass suicide of up to 500 people has shocked many people in the east African nation of Uganda.

Ugandan officials say that the dead -- including close to 100 children -- were all members of a sect calling itself the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. The incident occurred Friday at the sect's church near Kanungu, 350 kilometers southwest of the capital Kampala.

The cult is said to have been formed in 1989 by former Roman Catholic priests and nuns. Its leader, Joseph Kibweteere, prophesied the end of the world in the year 2000, and his followers apparently allowed themselves to be burned to death in obedience.

Yesterday, the charred remains of many of the victims were buried without ceremony, after prisoners from a nearby jail dug a long trench and bulldozed the bodies into a common grave.

Elizabeth Kameo is a reporter with the Ugandan daily "New Vision." She says Ugandans are struggling to come to grips with the mass suicide, something never before seen in the country on this scale.

"People are still in shock. They don't even know how to express it because people have cried [but] they've run out of tears. It's too much, I don't even know how to explain it."

According to Kameo, the discovery of the mass suicide may lead to even more bodies being found at the site. She says police suspect that additional victims may have been dumped in a pit underneath a building that served both as house of worship and a home for the cult's leader. The killings, she says, may date as far back as 1997, when the sect opened its church on the site.

Kameo also say sects in Uganda often establish themselves under the guise of a non-governmental organization, or NGO. She explains:

"What these cults have been doing is, they've been registering as non-governmental organizations that have been coming in to give help. This is what our country needs now: non-governmental organizations that render help because we are in a situation that really needs help, not in religion. In the north there is war, there is [a] food shortage, there is a need for education."

Uganda's Interior Minister Edward Rugumayo says the government will be more careful in the future when it checks out NGOs applying for certification.

Other Ugandans say the great hardships the country faced under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin between 1971 and 1979 left people seeking spiritual fulfillment. Dr. Florence Baingana, head of the Health Ministry's mental health division says: "Life was very hard. People have these gaps in their lives -- spiritual gaps -- and they look for different ways of filling them -- like joining cults."

Worldwide, the number of people seeking to fill such spiritual gaps seems to be rising, as the number of cults and cult adherents is growing. Some of the most noteworthy sects include Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult, responsible for a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, and China's Falun Gong sect, which has no violent leanings but is nonetheless feared by communist authorities in Beijing.

In the former Eastern bloc, Russia has witnessed a boom in sect activity. Last year, police raided a building where about 60 members of an evangelical Christian sect had been holed up for three days and had asked to be shot dead. At the time, Patriarch Aleksei, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said: "Russia has been flooded by sects of a destructive nature, which often cripple people's souls."

Uganda has a history of particularly violent religious sects. The country's two main rebel groups -- both currently at war with the government -- are based on religious tenets, one Christian, one Muslim.

A Ugandan government official (Richard Mutazindwa) who had contact with the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments several years ago said most its adherents were what he described as "the poorest of the poor." Many of them, he said, were old women who had sold what little they had to join the cult.

The Ugandan tragedy will go down in sect history as the second greatest mass suicide ever recorded. The largest, known as the "Jonestown massacre," took place in the South American country of Guyana in 1978, when more than 900 people took poisoned drinks given to them by their sect's leaders.