Jul 21, 2018

18 years later, talk of memorial for Kanungu cult victims is still just that—talk [MRTCG]

Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments
Gilbert Mwijuke
Chwezi Traveller
July 2, 2018

On March 17, 2000, close to 1,000 people were burnt to death in the rolling hills of Nyabutogo in Kanungu district, southwestern Uganda. The victims – men, women and children – were locked up in a church and set ablaze in broad daylight.

One of the worst cult massacres in human history, this hideous act was orchestrated by the infamous Joseph Kibwetere, a self-styled 'prophet' who had spent several years duping his gullible Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments followers that the world would end on December 31, 1999. Once the year 2000 kicked in, Jesus would return and take them to heaven, Kibwetere convinced his 'herd'.

One of Kibwetere's precepts dictated that his followers had to sell off everything they owned – land, livestock, household items, clothes, etc – and tithe all proceeds to his church.

Numbering about 30,000 people, the majority of them lived as one big family at Kibwetere's sprawling estate in Kanungu – complete with adequate residences, a primary school, market, hospital, church and other amenities. This land belonged to Kashaku Mwerinde, the father of Cledonia Mwerinde, Kibwetere's partner in crime.

As we dived into the new millennium, Kibwetere's followers waited for the end of the world – and the return of Jesus – in vain. As we moved deeper into the new millennium, many of Kibwetere's followers began to suspect, or realise, that his Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was a sham, that they had been defrauded.

They demanded a refund, and they wanted it immediately. See, Kibwetere had only lured them with one promise: that the world would end on December 31, 1999, and that Jesus would return and take them to heaven. But the world was not ending and Jesus was not returning. They wanted out. They wanted to begin a new life.

As pressure mounted on Kibwetere, he was compelled to deliver what he had promised his herd: the end of the world. And deliver he did on March 17, 2000 – albeit only for his people, and in nauseating brutality.
Where did Kibwetere go?

Images from Kanungu, awash in media all over the world, depicted a scene from a poorly produced horror movie. The world was in shock. Kibwetere himself was nowhere to be seen, and no one, at least as far as the general public is concerned, has ever set sight on him since that fateful day.

"He must have died with his people. He wasn't a ghost so if he was alive at least someone, someone somewhere, would know," says Micugwa, who is now employed at the tea firm that has since replaced Kibwetere's once bustling estate.

In 2000, Micugwa was a teenage boy living nearby and one of the first people to arrive at the scene when Kibwetere's church went up in flames.

Burnt beyond recognition, the only logical thing to do at the time was to bury Kibwetere's victims in one mass grave, on site. The mass grave was rudimental, corpses simply thrown into one huge pit.

Up until now, this mass grave is not even marked by a tombstone. 1,000 innocent people buried in an undignified manner. The mass grave cannot even be recognised by a first-time visitor.

The only visible structure here is the dilapidated church, which Kibwetere had constructed and was set to officially launch on that same day when he ironically decided to deliver the mortal blow.

"It was a very beautiful structure," says Micugwa, who has vainly tried to bury those unpleasant memories.

This is a spot that seems to have eternally ensnared Micugwa, now 36 years old. For the bigger part of his life, he has been tending to the farm that was set up here by Byaruhanga, the man who bought the land from Kashaku's family a few years after the grotesque massacres.
The long-awaited museum

Now Micugwa says that his boss has plans of constructing here a museum whose exhibits will include exhumed bodies from the mass grave. The museum will serve as a place where friends and relatives of the victims can always go and honour their loved ones.

But there are two problems. One, most Kanungu residents claim that there are ghosts here – ghosts of Kibwetere's victims that roam this spot tormenting anyone who comes nearby.

"At night you hear sounds of people crying," one Kanungu resident told me.

But Micugwa dismisses the claims as fictitious. "If there were ghosts, I would have seen one because I've been working here for the bigger part of my adulthood," says Micugwa, who clearly frowns upon any claim of the existence of ghosts.

The other problem is that the government, according to Micugwa, also has the same plan as Byaruhanga, so the two parties are yet to agree on how the project should be tacked together and managed.

What remains to be seen is whether this project will ever kick off as this is a plan that was first mooted by the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the country's tourism industry regulator, about 15 years ago.


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