Kibwetere massacre, the forgotten event

It is now five years since Joseph Kibwetere, a self-styled prophet and bishop, burnt up more than 1,000 Ugandans in one of the world’s worst massacres.

Francis Niwagaba visited Kanungu to find out the developments if any.

It happened at 11 a.m. Friday, March 17, 2000, at Katate, Kanungu, Kinkizi, in the then Rukungiri district.

The masterminds of the cult besides Kibwetere, a failed politician and retired teacher, were Catholic priests Domenic Kataribabo and John Kasapurari, both renegades from the Mbarara Diocese. Credonia Mwerinde, a one-time prostitute and barmaid who owned the Kanungu Independent bar, assisted them.

Their cult was based on restoring the Ten Commandments before the world ended, an event predicted for 2000.

According to A Timely Message From Heaven, a book, followers were supposed to read three times a week. Kibwetere claimed to have communicated to the Virgin Mary and been instructed to reformulate the Commandments. Similarly, Credonia claimed that on June 14, 1980, she had been instructed to guard against the Sixth Commandment, the breach of which had brought Aids down on people.

The Monitor visited the site of the massacre to find out what it is like now.

The home of the former Kibwetere cult is about 450 kilometres from Kampala in the southwestern district of Kanungu. The place is two and a half kilometres east of Kanungu town, on a road called in reference to the tragedy, “Inferno Road.”

“We named the road Inferno Road so as to remember what happened to our brothers in 2000,” says Magezi Emmy, the area L.C.5 Councilor Kanungu District.

The home is abandoned now. Cars cannot get to the area because a log bridge connecting the road to Kanungu town council has decayed and can no longer support the weight of vehicles.

Once magnificent buildings that served as the cult’s headquarters are falling apart. Not a single building still possesses windows or doors.

Haruna Katwigi, the immediate neighbour, says local authorities have neglected the complex.

“The doors and windows were stolen by the villagers due to the fact that there are no policemen guarding the place,” says Katwigi, a witness to the massacre.

The villagers also have taken iron sheets and most of the buildings have collapsed or are about to because of the rain.

Ivan Twinamasiko, a resident of the area, explains, “A public good that is not protected belongs to nobody. I think this is where Kibwetere property lies.”

The once extensive farm Kibwetere owned has turned into bush. The pineapple fields have vanished and the banana plantation is nearly extinct because domestic animals have grazed in this area.

A spring the cult used is abandoned even by neighbours. Katwigi says there’s a stigma attached to the place.

“People do not want to be associated with Kibwetere. That is why they cannot use his water,” he says.

All the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary that cult followers prayed to have long since been stolen or broken.

“After the massacre, not all people who flocked to the place were mourners,” says Turyahikayo Alex, a witness. “Some of them, including police were hunting for money.” These people destroyed many of the monuments in the buildings, he adds.

The mass grave where the burnt people were laid to rest can no longer be identified. Bush covers the place and no sign marks the sad spot.

“But you are standing on the grave,” says Katwigi, who can find it still.

The massacre seems well on the way to being forgotten, and that seems to be what the people of Kanungu want.

Moses Niwagaba, a cult member for two months, says there is nothing good to remember.

“As one of the practices of the Kibwetere cult, followers were buried alive. Sex denial to married couples was a practice in the camp and sleeping on empty stomachs for many days under the guise of fasting was a common practice.

“Use of prayer as a substitute for medicine for patients was a remedy for Kibwetere who did not have a health centre for his big population,” Niwagaba recounts.

Most survivors of the massacre were once recruits of Kibwetere who no longer want to be associated with the cult.

District officials said they want to develop the cult site soon, in a way that will keep the memory alive.

“We are planning to build the first-ever cult museum in the whole world at this site,” said John Engabi, senior community development officer for the Kanungu District. The mayor of the Kanungu Town Council said that a magnificent hotel is to be constructed at the place too.

None of these grand visions have begun to materialise though. Officials say the place looks abandoned and no work has begun because the land has to be legally obtained before it can be developed.

“We have now acquired the land officially and that is why we are preparing to develop the place,” Engabi said.

According to the Kanungu District Tourism Development Plan, a document prepared by EDSA and Dr. Anna Spenceley last year, the existing church will be converted into a museum and a cafe, ticket office, toilets and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary will be restored or built.

In order for an authentic museum to be made, all statues, monuments and other things identified with Kibwetere cult have to be retained. That could be a problem since statues have been stolen, chairs Kibwetere used are gone and the buildings are collapsing.

While officials debate what to do with his land, there are no new developments after in trying to locate and arrest Joseph Kibwetere.

Police ask that any individuals with information about him call them.

Kitaka Gawera, the Residence District Commissioner during the cult’s active years, who commissioned and laid a foundation stone for cult’s primary school, was the main official who helped the cult.

The primary school did not fulfil Ministry of Education requirements and was soon closed. Immediately after the massacre, in a visit to the place, then vice president, Dr. Kazibwe Specioza, said a commission of inquiry into Kibwetere-Kanungu massacre would be instituted.

That commission never materialised. Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the Minister of Internal Affairs, said it “did not sit because of budgetary constraints, and there is no way its results could be published. The results are not there.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Monitor, Uganda
Mar. 18, 2005
Franci Niwagaba

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 18, 2005.
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