KANUNGA, Uganda -- Barefoot prisoners began the gruesome task Monday of burying the charred corpses of up to 500 members of a Ugandan Doomsday cult.
Each carrying a new spade, dozens of men marched to the site to shovel the bodies into a mass grave along the side of the church, on a peaceful green hillside, where the cult members set themselves ablaze three days earlier.Before the burial, about 100 relatives of the dead filed past to peer through windows at the pile of bodies, some of them tiny children curled together or lying with arms outstretched.
Some relatives wept softly, holding sprigs of rosemary to their noses.
Across the compound that was home to followers of the "Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments," police made another macabre discovery.
Breaking through a layer of fresh cement, they shone torches to reveal at least 20 bodies in the dank cavern beneath. More were found in the sect's neat vegetable and herb garden.
"It is horror. It is just murder and horror," said Faustine Tirenderana, an elderly farmer who had walked over a sugar-cane covered hill to see what had happened to his neighbors.
He said the quiet, simple-living people had become restless in recent months. Cult leaders, who demanded their followers communicate only in gestures, had foretold that the world would end last New Year's Eve, at the dawn of the new millennium.
When it did not, followers began to question their leaders, who included excommunicated priests and nuns. Some members even demanded back the money and possessions they had given to the leaders when they joined the cult.
So the leaders extended the deadline for Armageddon and "made sure that it happened," Tirenderana said.
While the prayer room blaze--fueled by gasoline and paraffin--initially looked like a mass ritual suicide, many of the victims may not have been complicit, he said.
"For suicide I would have thought that all of them agreed, so it can't be called that. It should be called murder, especially for the children. They were innocent."
It was not known whether the cult's founder, charismatic former political activist Joseph Kibwetere, was among the dead.
Local people in the impoverished farming region said Kibwetere had grown rich at the expense of his brainwashed followers.
A Catholic nun, Stella Maris, who had come to pray at the site, wept into her handkerchief as she walked through the dismal dormitories, adorned only with plastic crucifixes, where more than 400 people slept together on stone floors.
"Look, they had nothing," she said. "This is not the way of God."