When Kanungu is mentioned, two things come to mind – its tourism potential and the over 1,000 followers of Joseph Kibwetere who were burnt to death. Patson Bareire visited the place and reports that the community has now moved on
Thirteen years ago today, over 1,000 followers of Joseph Kibwetere’s Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments were burnt to death at Nyabugoto, Kanungu district in what the Police considered a mass murder.
Today, the site is almost forgotten. Except for the rubbles in the middle of a vast bush, nothing at the site reminds one of the Kanungu inferno. Neither have the area residents heard anything about cult leaders Kibwetere, Cledonia Mwerinde and Fr. Kataribabo.
Today, area residents are cultivating part of the land that belonged to Kibwetere’s cult, but most of it has overgrown bushes covering a few square kilometres.
Yafesi Niwagaba, who works at a nearby tea nursery, says save for two owls that are always perched on the big trees, there is hardly any activity in the area. As he speaks, an owl makes a sound at a distance. The locals associate owls with bad luck. Indeed, it was bad luck for those who died at the site.
To date, all we know is that the cult leaders planned a mass murder, but the mystery has not been fully unravelled. How were the leaders able to mobilise and kill such a large number of people? Where did the cult leaders flee to?
Immediately after the inferno, the Government instituted a commission of inquiry into the cause of the inferno, but not much came out of the inquiry.
The land, which belonged to Mwerinde’s father, has been sold off to different people after Mwerinde’s nephew, Speriano Kananura, went to court and successfully argued that he had a claim to it. The land title had been handed over to Kanungu Police Station for safe custody just days before the inferno.
At first, it was thought that all siblings of Mwerinde had perished in the inferno and nobody would put a claim over the land. Subsequently, the newly created Kanungu district local adminstration tried to take control of it and even went ahead to propose and pass a resolution suggesting that the site be turned into a museum.
But when Kananura argued his case in court successfully and the title was returned to him, he sold the vast land to one Benon Byaruhanga, a tea farmer in Rugyeyo sub-county, who has now opened part of the land to plant tea.
Other parts of the land which the cult owned are reported to have been sold off before the inferno and the people who bought it planted trees. Walking through the artificial forest, one can think that the land has never been bare.
Robert Amutuhaire, a resident
The Kanungu deputy resident district commissioner, Juuko Kasiita, confirms that he got reliable reports that the land, which formerly belonged to Kibwetere and his group, had been sold, adding that the new owner has the right to use the land the way he wants.
The new owner reported to his office to show ownership documents, including a land title. Cattle keepers take advantage of the vast unoccupied land to graze their stock.
Only ruins of the church, where cult members died, is still visible. It is reported that all the buildings which were left in the place were vandalised by people who were mostly interested in taking away iron sheets, windows and doors.
The district Police commander Kanungu, Edson Muhangi, says about five years ago when the vandalism was at its peak, some suspects were arrested and charged. However, they were later released since there was nobody who volunteered information to pin them in court.
The LC5 chairperson for Kanungu, Josephine Kasya, was non-committal on the Kibwetere issue, saying she needed to discuss it with councillors before issuing a statement.
Robert Amutuhaire, who hails from the neighbouring village of Masya in Kanungu town council, was only six years old at the time of the inferno. Elders warned him against going to the site, saying he would be cursed if he did so. Nobody would even talk about it loudly.
“Fearing to be heard, we would talk about it in hushed voices,” Amutuhaire says.
However, today, he no longer fears that the cult members’ ghosts might be lurking in the bushes. Instead, he likes grazing his cattle at the site because of the lush pasture that is available free of charge, at least for now.
“When we were young, we feared to come here but today there is no fear at all,” Amutuhaire says.
A cow grazes on the land formerly occupied by Kibwetere and his group. In the background is the house that
used to serve as the headquarters of the cult