Judith Ariho does not shed a tear as she recalls a church massacre in which her mother, brother and sister and four other relatives found themselves among at least 700 people who lost their lives.
Exactly 20 years ago, in southwestern Uganda's Kanungu district, they were locked in a church whose doors and windows were nailed to the outside. The church was then set on fire.
Two decades later, the horror of that event is still too much for Ariho, who seems to be able to cope with that trauma only if it completely shuts off all emotions.
The dead were members of the “Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God” – a cult of the end of the world who believed that the apocalypse was about to reach the new millennium.
The End of Present Times, as one book put it, arrived two and a half months later, on March 17, 2000.
Twenty years later, no one has yet been prosecuted in connection with the massacre and cult leaders, if alive, have never been found.
Ana Kabeireho, who still lives on the slope above the land once owned by the cult, has not forgotten the smell that swept the valley that Friday morning.
“Everything was covered in smoke, soot and the smell of burnt meat. You were under the impression that it was coming directly into your lungs, “she recalls.
“Everyone was running into the valley. The fire was still booming. There were dozens of bodies, burned to unrecognizability.
“We covered our noses with aromatic leaves to counteract the smell. Months later we couldn't eat meat. “
Kanungu is a fertile and tranquil region full of green hills and deep valleys, covered with small farms littered with hearths.
The only way to descend into the valley that used to be the headquarters of the Movement is on foot.
From there, it is easy to see how this religious community was able to lead lives away from the eyes of its neighbors.
The song of birds bounces against the hills, and the sound of a nearby waterfall is heard. It is an ideal environment for contemplative life.
But today there is nothing left of the gasoline-fueled building. At the edge of where it stood is an oblong mound of earth, the only feature of a mass grave in which the remains of victims of the fire were buried.
Scattered priests and nuns
The faithful were attracted by the charismatic leaders of Credoni Mverinda, a former waitress and sex worker, and former government official Joseph Kibwetere, who claimed to have appeared to the Virgin Mary in the 1980s.
They registered the Movement as a group whose goal is to obey the Ten Commandments and preach the word of Jesus Christ.
Christian icons were prominent in the Movement Complex and the cult had little connection with the Roman Catholic Church as its leaders were dominated by numerous scattered priests and nuns, including Ursula Komuhangi and Dominic Qataribabo.
Believers lived mostly in silence, occasionally using sign language to communicate.
Questions would be sent to Mverinde in writing. Known as the “program leader”, it is rumored that she was the brain of the institution and she would send back written answers.
Ariho, 41, joined the Movement with her family when she was 10 years old.
Her widowed mother struggled to raise three children, one of whom suffered from chronic headaches. The Kibweera group offered them prayers and a sense of belonging, she says.
This self-sustaining community welcomed entire families, catering to their every need. Members grew their own food and used their skills to contribute to the community through work.
The Ariho family ran a branch of the church with about 100 members in their complex two kilometers from the city of Rukungiri.
“Life revolved around prayer, though we were also engaged in farming,” she says.
“We have done everything in our power to avoid sin. Sometimes, if you were wrong, you would be asked to pray the Rosary 1,000 times. “
“You had to do it, but also ask your friends and family to help you, until you have served your sentence.”
Expressing allegiance to the Movement regularly included a pilgrimage to a nearby steep stone hill. After a difficult ascent through the forest of eucalyptus, hanging from the rocks and clinging to bush grass, the believers would reach the rock they believed to represent the Virgin Mary.
As we walk through her village, she shows us the hearths of her closest neighbors. “They lost a mother and eleven children there, and a mother and her eight children died in that house,” she says, looking down at the land.
Ariho did not travel to Kanunga because in 2000 she married into a family that was not part of the Movement.
But she remembers that the leaders held the believers in all-around grip, saying that the Mverinde and Komuhangi acted as though they were aware of every sin committed in the farthest branches of the church.
When a follower broke the rules, two women would send bloody tears to their eyes, she claimed.
But it seems that cult leaders were involved in the killings and torture before the final massacre.
There are numerous wide and deep pits in Kanungu that have found dozens of bodies believed to have been dumped there for several years after the fire.
Behind the facility that acts as a dilapidated office building are two more pits, which are said to have served as torture rooms. Caves were also found near other branches of the church.
What turned ordinary members of society into murderous cult leaders is still not clear.
Prior to his apparitions, Kibwetere was a successful man and a regular member of the Roman Catholic community.
Tofer Semereza, now a representative of local authorities, regarded him as a paternal figure.
“He was an exemplary member of the community and an astute businessman. I didn't have a job when I graduated from college, so he offered me to transport local illegally made alcohol, which we sold to nearby districts, “he explains.
A few years later, Kibwetere informed the protégé that he would no longer sell alcohol. The elderly man and his fellow cult leaders spent two weeks at the state-owned Shemerezina House until the evening they left for Kanungu, where they would establish the headquarters of the Movement.
“That's the last time I saw him. The man I knew was not a killer. Something must have changed him, “he says.
After the founding of the Movement, the words of Kibwetere and his religious organization spread southwestern Uganda and beyond.
The community did not isolate itself from the rest of society, and several people in positions of power – including police officers and local government officials – knew of all their activities. But little was done against the cult itself before the catastrophic fire broke out.
Although Interpol issued an arrest warrant for six cult leaders in April 2000, it is still unknown if any of them were killed in the fire or are still alive and hiding.
A 2014 Uganda police report indicates that Kibwetere may have fled the country. But others doubt his health could have allowed him to do so.
Spiritual movements that bear the hallmarks of the Kanungu cult, in which the followers unequivocally believe that priests can resurrect the dead or that holy water can cure them of various ailments, have continued to sprout across the continent.
Their appeal is obvious, according to Dr. Padi Musana of the Department of Religious and Peace Studies at Makerere University.
“When there is a problem or need that cannot be easily met by existing institutions such as the traditional faith or government, and someone who claims to have a solution emerges, thousands will gather around them,” he told the BBC.
“The Kanungu cult pointed to the evils of that time … and preached the renewal or rediscovery of faith.”
Dr. Musana says that one does not have to search much to find similar thought in the messages of today's self-proclaimed prophets.
“The Jesus Industry” has become an investment venture. Today's preachers talk about health and wellness, because of the many diseases and the public health system that barely works, “says this academic.
He argues that the government must do more to control these spiritual movements.
Two decades later, the 48-acre land near Kanungu is now used as a tea plantation, but local businessman Benin Bjaruhanga says he has plans to turn it into a monument.
So far, no honor has been shown to the dead from Kanungu. Those who lost loved ones never received any answers.
“We pray for our loved ones ourselves. We suffer our pain in silence, ”Ariho says, recalling the death of his mother, brother and sister.