The Monitor (Uganda), Nov. 18, 2002
By Elizabeth Kameo
A terrible religious massacre took place in their midst more than two years ago. But while other communities show off their mass graves like a tourist attraction, in Kanungu, writes Elizabeth Kameo, they are desperate to forget:
The first man we asked for directions told us to take the wrong turning without pausing to think about it.
Speaking in Luganda, he pointed us to a junction leading off the main road to indicate that we should turn off here, and walked off.
A few metres away and we had still not found the turn off. There were two roads both heading off in the same direction, and it was hard telling which road we were supposed to take.
When we next stopped to ask again for directions, there were three men relaxing in an old pick-up.
One looked around as if he might be doing something wrong, even talking to us. Then he beckoned his friend, who took about five minutes fumbling to open the car door, and then dragged his feet.
Finally we had the directions; which basically was drive straight ahead for five miles and ask again.
That’s when we met a woman at a junction.
She was a petite woman, with a village-belle shyness, dressed in brown gardening garb. Standing beside her was a small boy about six years old, who was intently staring at us.
At first she just ignored our inquiry and continued walking.
Then without uttering a word, with the clean sweep of her hand, quickly directed us to take the murram road she seemed to be taking.
But in the three minutes or less it took us to manoeuvre into the steep turning, she had disappeared into thin air. No one saw where or how she did it, she just suddenly went out of sight.
But then suddenly the boy appeared again with mates of his, and proceeded to be our tour guide.
For a new district like Kanungu, it could be easy to refashion this lush green hillside into a dollar-earning tourist site.
Imagine the largest mass grave affordable in the middle of a sea of colourful flowers. Around it could be a huge green park for the worn tourist to lie down and meditate.
The buildings could house the unfortunate, though still intriguing history of the Church for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, its arch-priest Kibwetere, and the unfortunate followers who died in a fierce blaze in it.
It’s no small historic achievement that the modern world’s second largest mass suicide (or was it mass murder) happened here.
More than 500 followers of the reclusive church are estimated to have died in the fire that ended the church. Other are reported to have been killed and buried on the grounds before that.
With some good story tellers, this could make an hour of a really interesting walkabout talking tour – the kind they do at the Kasubi Tombs, or Namugongo shrines.
As a new, rural district, God knows they could use the cash.
Yet two years and eight months after Kibwetere made religious and murder-mystery history, the people of this small district would rather forget the event that jolted them to the front pages of world history.
For the residents of Kanungu, their everyday prayer is to probably wake up one morning and realise that the memories of March 7, 2000 were a fabled tale that in fact never happened.
But it’s not an easy task.
Seeking seclusion, Kibwetere built his church up on the hill, overlooking the village.
The main building in which the followers died has been razed to the ground and the mass grave overgrown with bush.
(The other buildings, though outgrown with bushes, are still intact. And it’s strange that no one has been tempted to steal the iron sheets, doors or windows. Not even in anger has anyone knocked down a single wall.)
For the villagers below, every time they raise their eyes and look towards the horizon, the spot that housed the commune stands out like an accusation. It’s as if those silent, ghostly strangers are still looking down on the village.
The children have been more pragmatic, earning a few shillings from curious city travellers that visit the site every now and then.
But adults only want to forget.
Located 320kms from Kampala, Kanungu is tucked in the southwestern corner of Uganda, a beautiful green countryside with some of the most spectacular landscapes.
To its west is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armies of six African states (notably Uganda and Rwanda) have been sucked into a messy regional war.
To the south is Rwanda, up to 800,000 people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide. Talk about a bad neighbourhood.
Could this have influenced what happened in Kanungu?
The Church for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments was one of several Doomsday cults that sprung up in Uganda in the 1990s and was registered in 1997 as a non-governmental organisation.
It’s followers, people gathered from all over the country, generally never mixed with the villagers. But on special occasions, many local government officials (even villagers) feasted at the hillside and marvelled at the commune’s organisation, its members’ discipline, and apparent prosperity.
(No other institution in Kanungu boasts buildings as modern.)
Inside the schoolrooms, science and social studies illustrations are still painted on the walls.
It is as if the kids are expected back after a long holiday during which the compound has overgrown and the room become dusty.
Our 13-year old tour guide, Twinomuhangi, took us to a small, dark room whose walls are painted completely in dark red colours. This was the slaughterhouse for recalcitrant followers who forgot their manners and questioned their leader or his teachings.
“People would be brought into this room on the pretext that they were going to pray,” Twinomuhangi said.
“See it is painted red, so no one would see the spluttered blood of the victims.”
The bodies would be dumped into an unused pit latrine, and were discovered later, after the church full of people went up in flames on a Sunday afternoon.
The latrine is a few feet away from one of the main buildings, not such a good plan since latrines are supposed to be 15 metres away from living quarters.
It’s not easy walking on this ground. It feels like mysterious eyes are lurking in the corners, following one’s every step.
Even if all bodies were dug up and buried two years and eight months ago, one feels as if a body might still be buried beneath the ground where one is stepping.
In the main church, a building that had never been used, is a big altar.
According to our young guides, beneath the alter lies the body of Cledonia Mwerinde’s dead mother.
Why one would bury their mother beneath the alter of a church is hard to imagine. Could she have been a sacrifice?
On the wall just above the altar is a writing; Kibwetere’s Church; 2000 March 17th”.
The corridors in all the buildings are small, dark and creepy; one can not help but imagine how the followers in their big numbers managed to walk through them without bumping into each other.
The thought that we were walking through the small corridors, taking the same steps as people who were on the way to their death was discomforting.
What might they have been thinking?
It was hard thinking of anything to say, so we just kept quiet.
According to Kajumba M. Mayanja, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Makerere University, says the people of Kanungu are not just being rude or unhelpful to strangers, but are a long way from healing from the trauma of the events that took place in their small village.
Finding explanations in psychology and traditional beliefs, Kajumba says following traumatising events, people experience tremendous levels of anxiety, guilt and fear. They try to block out the memories consciously or unconsciously.
He described the residents’ avoidance of speaking of the incident as a “phobic avoidance of traumatic situations”.
“When they think of the incident, they become panicky, feeling as if it will occur again, so they avoid any reminder of what happened. They don’t want to talk about it,” Kajumba says.
Kajumba says the African traditional belief in spirits is responsible for why people in the area avoid going near the site. (It’s the same reason people avoid burial sites.)
“They can’t go near the place to steal or dismantle property,” he said.
“They believe the spirits will follow them back home and haunt them if they go near the site.”
“People feel they should have performed burial rituals and funeral rites, something that was not possible with the mass grave. So this causes guilt and a fear of angry spirits,” Kajjumba says.
Not many of Kibwetere’s followers were residents of Kanungu. Most were strangers from all over the country. It’s probably unsettling thinking of so many ghosts of strangers roaming the village.
Perhaps another explanation is that people feel they, or somebody, could have done something to prevent the incident.
As we walked down the hill back to our vehicle, we came across a well where Kibwetere’s followers used to collect water.
It is very clean and well protected, and very close to the village. Yet the locals avoid it like a plague, instead walking long distances to collect their water from the other side of the village.
Twinomuhangi said when villagers used the same well before, they never, ever spoke to the cult members, who had been sworn to silence on visits to the village.
Now that they are dead, many villagers feel they still silently haunt the well, only that they can’t be seen.
At the end of our tour, I couldn’t imagine that something so ugly, so devilish, could have been associated with God’s name or the Virgin Mary as Mwerinde claimed.
More unsettling though was the thought that something so ugly could have taken place in a place so beautiful.