THE sour stench of death strikes even before you approach the freshly churned mounds of red soil in south-western Uganda. It's a smell that increases each day as investigators uncover more rotting remains of victims of the world's most lethal doomsday cult amid the region's banana plantations.
The catalogue of corpses is already approaching 1,000 - most of them women and children. Almost 400 have been exhumed from four fetid mass graves, while up to 530 people are thought to have been incinerated in the inferno that swept two weeks ago through the tin-roofed church of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The reason that the leaders of the fanatical sect launched their voracious killing spree remains a mystery. But a Telegraph investigation has revealed that the true power behind the cult lay not with its titular head, the self-styled bishop Joseph Kibwetere, but with Credonia Mwerinde, a charismatic and calculating former prostitute with a love of money and a gift for manipulation.
Sister Credonia was known to be one of the triumvirate leading the movement - the third figure was Father Dominic Kataribaabo, a defrocked pastor under whose bedroom and garden 155 bodies were found buried last week. But only now is it possible to piece together the full extent of her domination over the sect - and over Kibwetere and Kataribaabo.
Overwhelmed and out of their depth, Uganda's police have no idea whether the cult's leaders are alive or dead. But while some people claim to have recognised the charred corpses of the two men in the gutted church in Kanungu, there is no sign that Sister Credonia perished in the blaze. Instead, the plump 48-year-old is thought to have made her getaway - possibly across jungle trails into the Congo - with tens of thousands of pounds handed over by her followers.
Fr Paul Ikazire, a priest who spent three years as one of the cult's leaders before defecting back to the Roman Catholic Church, recalls how Sister Credonia dominated the sect. He says: "The meetings were chaired by Sister Credonia, who was the de facto head of the cult. Kibwetere was just a figurehead, intended to impose masculine authority over the followers and enhance the cult's public relations. I perceived her as a trickster, obsessed with the desire to grab other people's property. She told her followers to sell their property but she never sold hers."
Sister Credonia was also responsible for imposing a ruthless daily regimen on the devotees. They would be woken before sunrise to perform religious rites and receive instruction on her apocalyptic teachings, then be forced to toil from dawn until dusk in the fields, with only a cup of porridge in the mornings and a plate of beans in the evenings.
A strict code of silence was also enforced: followers were allowed to speak only to recite prayers or sing hymns. This brutal way of life turned her followers - many of them illiterate peasants when they joined - into a cowed, half-starved, sleep-deprived flock which was ripe for brain-washing. Uganda has a history of extremist Christian cults, so converts would not have thought it strange to be ordered to sell their possessions and hand the cash over to the "Church". Sister Credonia was, however, no believer in practising what she preached: she ate well and gained weight steadily during her years of leading the sect. "The only thing that made Credonia really happy was making money," her sixth and last husband, Eric Mazima, told The Telegraph. "She also used to enjoy spending it - on dresses, eating and drinking. She was a strong and clever woman, but she was never a church-goer. She had even once been a prostitute."
Credonia used to run a business selling illicit banana beer and spirits, but ran into financial difficulties in 1988. A few weeks later, she claimed to have had a vision in a cave of the Virgin Mary who told her that the world must live by the Ten Commandments. When Mr Mazima, who was 22 years her senior, visited the cave and could not see Mary, she told him that she was leaving him.
Mr Mazima believes the only vision that Credonia had was of a new way to make money. Aware of the shortcomings of her own far-from-devout past, she sought out Kibwetere, a respected and wealthy former headmaster and senior civil servant who was well-known in the area for his obsessive interest in visions of the Virgin Mary.
Theresa, Kibwetere's estranged wife, says: "Sister Credonia told us that the Virgin Mary had appeared and told her to go to Mbarara where she would find a man called Kibwetere who would take her to his home, where they would spread her message to the world."
Credonia and her cousin Ursula moved into the Kibweteres' house in 1989 and by 1990 - when the cult was registered as a religious movement with the authorities - 200 followers, mostly women and children, were already living there. Kibwetere's childhood friend, Fr Kataribaabo, a highly-educated Catholic priest with a masters' degree from a Californian religious academy, also joined the sect after falling out with his bishop.
Both men are described as serene and quietly-spoken; but both were also torn by religious turmoil that made them prey to Credonia's influence. Indeed, Kibwetere was treated for mental illness in 1998. Although there is no doubt that they also oversaw the killing spree - Kataribaabo even bought the sulphuric acid used in the church blaze - they appeared to have believed in their warped visions of Catholicism.
Few who knew Sister Credonia believed that she shared their religious conviction. The cultists left Kibwetere's house in 1993 and settled on a hill at Kanungu. Here, during the next seven years, on land that belonged to Credonia's family, the cult erected an impressive compound of 12 buildings surrounded by farmland.
In the half-constructed new church that now stands abandoned, the altar is built over the graves of Credonia's parents. The few former cult members who have come forward have revealed that the ranting doomsday zealotry served up as God's word was also primarily the work of Sister Credonia. She preached that the world would end in a three-day apocalypse that made the most dire of Old Testament predictions seem tame.
Only the "redeemed", those who had adhered, as instructed by the Virgin Mary, to the cult's interpretation of the Ten Commandments would enter a latter-day Noah's Ark and survive a process that she called the "sift". These true believers, the "new generation", were told that they would inherit the "new earth in year one". A life of luxury awaited - so they had no need to hold on to their possessions now.
Sister Credonia's promise of wealth and happiness after a bloody apocalypse found a ready audience in an impoverished country torn apart first by the murderous regime of Idi Amin and then the Aids epidemic. But the cult leaders hit problems predicting when the world would end. They glossed over the inaccuracy of their first doomsday deadline of 1992, revising the timetable to December 31, 1999.
When the apocalypse again missed its schedule, the cult circulated a note explaining that Christ had deferred the date to December 31 this year. In fact, the sect was rapidly approaching its own self-destructive end. No insiders have yet been found able to tell the story of the weeks of bloodletting that culminated in the Kanungu blaze on March 17.
But on that Friday morning, at least 530 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were boarded inside the church and were then incinerated in a fire set from within the building. The previous night, cult members were treated to an unprecedented celebration: 70 crates of Coca-Cola were ordered and a bull slaughtered. And in the run-up to March 17, the sect had been busily selling off everything from empty jerry cans and old clothes to houses and 200 head of cattle.
It is thought that cult members believed they were finally entering Noah's Ark to survive the three days of the apocalypse and that the boards were to protect them and keep out the unredeemed. Yet that does not explain why they did not react to the smell of the petrol and sulphuric acid that police say was sprinkled around the room. One possibility is that they were given drugged or poisoned communion wine.
Once the inferno began, there was no escape. One detective said: "It was all over very quickly." The blaze, initially treated as mass suicide, turned out to be only the fiery climax of a horrific killing rampage. Suspicions arose when six bodies showing signs of mutilation and poisoning were found three days later in a pit latrine at the compound.
On March 24, police announced that they were treating the Kanungu deaths as murder after the discovery of a mass grave containing 153 bodies at a cult property near Rukungiri, most apparently strangled or hacked to death. Last week another 236 corpses, mostly women and children, were exhumed from Kataribaabo's house and another sect site.
Uganda's only police pathologist, Thaddeus Barungi, estimates that the victims died about a month earlier. Clearly, something terrible occurred within the sect then, but in the absence of witnesses, police are again reduced to supposition.
Their favoured theory is that when the world failed to end on New Year's Eve, sect members who had sold off their property and handed the proceeds to the cult began to dissent, prompting a purge ordered by Sister Credonia. But who did the killing remains another mystery. The cult may have established a special militia unit from within its ranks. Or sect leaders may have told the devout that the dissenters had been sent by Satan and it was their duty to kill them.
The African culture of corruption certainly played into the cult's hands as it bought the approval of officials with gifts of livestock, food and cash. But how was it that neighbours at the grave sites, some of whom lived 20 yards away, saw and heard nothing, as they claim?
The explanation could be that south-west Uganda suffered dreadfully during the Amin years and the subsequent civil war and its people have learned not to interfere in the affairs of others. Or it could be that people are terrified that Sister Credonia will punish them by sending evil spirits if they speak out.
What is certain is that none of the cash hoarded by cult leaders in recent weeks has been retrieved from the compound. If Credonia is on the run, she is a wealthy woman after doing what she loved best: making money.