For the past 10 years, Credonia Mwerinde, 52, had built a following of devout worshippers. Her membership numbered in the thousands. Until the spring of 2000, when she and a dozen accomplices slaughtered 2,200 to 3,000 members.
Her group known as "The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God", which was founded in Uganda, believed the end of the world was nigh in the year 2000.
Most victims had been poisoned. Some were additionally strangled, stabbed or had their skulls bashed - if they didn't succumb to the poison quickly enough. Half were children. The bodies were placed in several mass graves. Pits that had been dug by the victims themselves.
On the morning of March 17 2000, in Kanungu, the final massacre took place. The last 600 surviving members, mostly women and children, were summoned by Mwerinde into the "Ark". A crude church that was lined with gasoline containers. The doors and windows were sealed. Investigators believe that Robert Kanangura, the farm manager, may have set the blaze. Everyone inside the "Ark" perished in an intense fireball. By that point, Mwerinde had slipped away. And is thought to be in neighboring Congo.
A Newsweek investigation led to new findings on the tragedy. According to interviews with, relatives, neighbors, local officials, ex-cult members and survivors. Mwerinde was violent, vindictive, possibly mentally unstable, obsessed with fire and had killed before. One possible motivation may have been to handle dissent after the cult's nominal leader died.
In the following weeks, Ugandan police found 4 mass graves in the countryside branch compounds of the cult. 979 bodies were counted, "There are many more graves, we know that" says Asuman Mugenyi, the National police spokesman. "The police don't have the resources to look for them". He added, "We tried but there isn't much interest, and there is no money."
One theory is that Mwerinde and subordinates were squelching an insurgency. Cult recruits upon joining, sold their worldly goods and gave the proceeds to the leadership. They did so in the belief the world would end in 2000. When that did not come to pass after the new year, investigators reasoned, members must have demanded refunds.
But doubt has been cast on that theory. The cults own constitution, written by Mwerinde, states the world will end "before the completion of the year 2000". A young cult member, Peter Ashibihibwe, 17, said "All she said was there would be no year 2001". Ashibihibwe survived the fire because he had snuck off the compound that morning in search of sugar cane.
Authorities are still baffled as to how Mwerinde was able to keep the earlier cult massacres across the Ugandan countryside a secret. But after the fire an important clue was found. Officials were drawn by a stench - to a latrine pit next to Mwerinde's bedroom. There they discovered the bodies of six men partly decomposed in sulfuric acid. Police theorized these were the executioners who had committed the earlier massacres. If it had not been for the smell of rotting flesh which led to the corpses- the murder of the remaining 600 members would have been assumed a mass suicide. And no investigation would have been launched. "It would have been the perfect murder." said investigator Eric Naigambi.
Newsweek's reconstruction of Mwerinde's career gives a glimpse into her mindset. Early on the woman, dubbed "The Programmer", displayed a violent streak, monetary greed and arsonist tendencies. In her early 20's, she set fire to the household belongings of a local official who had spurned her. Her family sent her away for treatment. On her return she admitted she had been "mentally disturbed". This revealed by Nalango Rukanyangira a childhood friend. In those years, Mwerinde owned a bar in Kanungu. A letter written by a close family friend discloses that Mwerinde once seduced then killed a passing motorist and kept his money. In another instance, she led her followers to the banana plantation of a relative who refused to join the cult. The group burned the plantation. Police also suspect that she may have poisoned her three brothers off, one by one. Until she was the sole owner of the property that became the cult headquarters. "She is crazy, and she is a murderer." states Dr. Thaddeus Barungi, chief pathologist in the investigation.
On the day of the final massacre, cult members were too servile to resist. Made that way by sleep and food deprivation. Followers had sworn to obedience, chastity and indigence. They slept on floors and washed with harsh laundry soap. They were expected to be taciturn at all times. And were forbidden to speak to their superiors, much less the 12 supreme leaders of the cult. (management structure based on the 12 apostles)
Catarina Nansana, 72, was expelled from the cult in October 1999, after her daughters set forth to exit her. "I believed living that way would save me. I had sores on my feet, my arms and my legs, but I didn't care. I believed what I was doing was right." explains Nansana. Another former member, Mary Kasambi, 42, said "Credonia could say, 'Today we are going to dig for one week. Today we are not going to eat for three days', and we wouldn't." Kasambi left in 1997 after witnessing 4 young starved children foraging for grasshoppers to eat. "Credonia would get a program from heaven, from the Virgin Mary, and she would transmit it to us. Our job was to obey. I don't believe people went to Credonia asking for their money." Kasambi added "You didn't ask questions."
Eric Mazima, ex-husband of Mwerinde, claims "She was never as happy as when she was making money." Mazima had sold his land and evicted his second wife to form a partnership in Mwerinde's bar business.
Mwerinde converted to Roman Catholicism after her bar went bust in 1998. She claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a cave outside Kanungu. She then enlisted the assistance of 2 local clerics to build her cult. Why would they consent? Mwerinde was considered beautiful, intelligent and persuasive. She appeared deeply devout, slept on the floor, fasted regularly and never smiled. She also spent hours writing, praying and would black-out during conversations to receive "messages" from the Virgin Mary. She had the mystique of being a converted sinner. A kind of Mary Magdalene.
For 3 years after her vision, Mwerinde lived in the house of Joseph Kibwetere, the headmaster of a private boarding school. Kibwetere, a Catholic, gave the movement instant credibility when he converted to it. His family finally threw the prophetess out of the house, suspecting she was having an affair with the man. Soon after, Kibwetere joined Mwerinde on her compound and became the nominal leader of the cult.
The murders that preceded Mwerinde's disappearance spanned over a several month period. Thousands of followers were transported to one of the cult's dozen rural compounds.
The poison was given to them at the evening meal. "It was a fast acting poison." said Barundi, the pathologist.
Amazingly, the murders were carried out in secrecy. Neighbors heard no shouts. Only the sounds of vehicles and the sounds of digging. "They told us they were digging latrines." said Teresa Kibesamire. It was in fact, the cult members digging their own graves.
Disposing of the bodies was gruesome. "They weren't just buried," said police spokesman Naigambi, "they were tightly packed." A mass grave was found on the property of a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, Dominic Kataribabo. He is considered by police to be Mwerinde's closest accomplice.
Police believe the chief killers to be Kataribabo, Kagangura, the farm manager, and Joseph Kapurare, another defrocked priest. Along with 12 or more subordinates. "We are looking for the operational cadre, that middle tier of leadership." Said Naigambi. "Credonia could say, 'kill those men', and they would be killed. They were so brainwashed they would do anything they were told."
Mwerinde harbored an obsession with demonic intrusion into the cult. "She said the devil was everywhere." recalls former member Kasambi. Any object entering the compound from the outside - medicine, clothes, food - had to be exorcised with prayer. Mwerinde may have convinced her executioners the Virgin told her the mass killings were necessary to rid evil from the community.
Another motive suggests Mwerinde was fearful of losing her power and wealth. Due to growing skepticism amongst followers. Doubt was spreading after Joseph Kibwetere's death last October. Police say his death may have set off defections that threatened Mwerinde's authority. Prompting her to commit the mass murders.
The chief killers may or may not be alive. The 6 burly men that did most of the burying are not. They ended up in a grave of their own. Detectives firmly believe Mwerinde is still alive. That she and Kataribo made their escape across the Ishaka river into Congo. Eastern Congo is lawless. Infested with Hutu militiamen who fled there after their operation of genocide in Rwanda. Unfortunately, a manhunt there is out of the question.