History is littered with forgotten tragedies… tragedies so great that we must pause and feel gratitude that neither we nor any of our loved ones suffered the fate of those involved. The story below is one such example, of when a community blindly followed its leaders to their doom… it is the story of the death-wish cult.
‘The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented.’
The congregation in the church tingled with excitement. There were hundreds of them, gathered for this special moment. It was March 17 – St Patrick’s Day – but there’d be no parade, or garish green leprechaun outfits, or copious pints of stout to be downed.
There would be hymns though… hymns that might have drowned out the sound of hammers, nailing wood over windows and doors, sealing in the faithful. Then would come the smell of gasoline, followed by death on a terrible scale.
This was Kanunga, Uganda, in 2000, and the members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Commandments of God were on a mission of mass murder and self-destruction. As an incendiary was ignited, flames engulfed the men, women and children crammed into the building, burning them to a cinder.
It would be estimated that 530 people were killed – 78 of them children – but it was hard to tell how many lost their lives so ferocious was the fire.
The death toll didn’t end there, though. More bodies were later discovered – hundreds more – on property owned by the religious group’s leaders. It’s estimated that a total of 780 members of the sect died in the run-up to and on March 17.
As its name would suggest, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandment of God (MRTCG) advocated strict adherence to the Commandments ‒, so much so that members were discouraged from talking, lest they break the Ninth Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.
So strict were these rules that on certain days communication was solely conducted through sign language. Sex was also forbidden, presumably in deference to the Tenth Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’.
The movement had a number of seers, or leaders, the most prominent of whom were Credonia Mwerinde, a woman who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary and who said she had once been a prostitute. Another key figure was Joseph Kibweteere. He, too, said he had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1984. Five years later, the two ‘visionaries’ met and formed the MRTCG and spread the word about Mary and her message about how an impending apocalypse would occur on December 31, 1999.
This was highlighted in movement’s booklet. Entitled ‘A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Time’, it said: When the year 2000 is completed, the year that will follow… shall be called Year One in a generation that will follow the present generation…The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented.
The text was required study for new members, who were taught that the Virgin Mary had a special role in the end, and that she communicated with their leadership.
The group’s ranks were joined by a number of former nuns and excommunicated priests.
Kibweteere, a businessman and politician, sold his properties and plant machinery and used the money to fund the movement. By 1997 the movement was going strong, with a membership of almost 5,000 people.
The sect had set up a community within pineapple and banana plantations, paid for by the members, who pooled their financial resources. Properties were built in western Uganda for the purpose of recruitment and indoctrination. Meanwhile, Mwerinde continued to have her visions of the Blessed Virgin… visions that told of an imminent Doomsday.
The following year, 1998, things weren’t going so smoothly. The Ugandan press reported that the sect had been shut down for unsanitary conditions, as well as for being suspected of kidnapping children for child labour.
Despite the serious accusations, the government gave the sect permission to reopen. By the time the final months of 1999 came around, the movement was a buzz of activity in preparation for the end of days. Personal belongings, cattle and property were all sold at knock-down rates and work on the plantations stopped.
The end may have been nigh, but it never arrived. January 1, 2000, signalled a new dawn…and no sign of an apocalypse.
Mwerinde and Kibweteere were asked to explain themselves. Police suspect that some members who had sold their possessions demanded a return of their money. Amid mounting pressure and after discussion amongst the leadership, it was decided that the apocalypse would occur on March 17.
That day, a feast was prepared. Three bulls were slaughtered, and the followers drank 70 creates of soft drinks during their version of a Last Supper. They then entered the church to sing and pray. Minutes’ later, nearby villagers heard an explosion.
The principal cult leaders, including Kibweteere and Mwerinde, were assumed to have died with their followers in the fire that consumed the building.
Four days after the church fire, police investigated the sect’s properties and discovered hundreds of bodies at sites across southern Uganda. The victims had been poisoned and stabbed about three weeks before the church inferno. The final death toll was put at 778 in what police believe to be mass murder, given the nature of the deaths and the fact that the church had been boarded up before being set alight.
And it doesn’t end there. Police also suspect that Kibweteere and Mwerinde may still be alive and have issued an international warrant their arrest. There have also been uncorroborated sightings of Kibweteere after the fire and some people suspect he is living under an assumed name.
Alive or dead, the ‘visionaries of the MRTCG committed a terrible deed. For a movement so fixated on the Ten Commandments, they had arrogantly managed to overlook the Fifth on that list: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
As an Irishman, I know that March 17 is meant to be a time of joy and celebration. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s Patrick’s Day parade, but after what happened in Kanunga, the date will be associated with a terrible crime – when hundreds of deluded adherents perished in agony at the hands of visionaries with a death wish.
Sometimes anniversaries need to be noted, no matter how painful the memory.