The massacre of Huambo

Reports of a massacre involving a mysterious religious cult gripped Angola’s attention early in 2015. In the province of Huambo in the Central Highlands, a preacher called José Julino Kalupeteka had convinced his followers that the apocalypse was nigh, and led them to set up camp on the Mount Sumi hillside to await the end. When police entered the site in March, a shootout ensued. The state rejected calls for an investigation and sealed off the site. Official accounts declared that sect members had killed nine police and that the police had shot 13 of the faithful. But rumours of deaths numbering in the hundreds continued to circulate, fed by the accounts of believers who had fled the area.

Luísa Rogério and photographer Ampe Rogério were the first journalists to gain admission to the site once the authorities agreed to lift the barricade. They published their impressions on Rede Angola (Network Angola), an online magazine whose founding as a space for informed debate and quality long-form journalism was a landmark in the development of a public sphere in Angola. Although some basic facts could not be established – bodies had been removed or buried before the journalists arrived – their reporting marked a moment when Angola was forced to take a look at itself. The government had spent 13 years congratulating itself on ending a civil war and getting fat on the oil boom that followed. That same government’s façade of modernity and sophistication was shattered by the revelation that when confronted with the eccentric behaviour of a religious crank, its instinct was to respond by firing on civilians. Luanda’s often inward-looking civil society was forced to turn its eyes to the interior provinces where, more than a decade after the war, a heavy state security presence still limits participation in political and civic life.

In 2016 Kalupeteka was sentenced to 28 years’ prison over the killing of the police officers. No charges have ever been brought in connection with the deaths of the civilians, who remain uncounted and unnamed.

The Silence of Death
Luísa Rogério, Rede Angola, 8 May 2015

Rede Angola went to the site where religious cult Luz do Mundo (Light of the World) set up their camp. Around it, hushed conversations about Kalupeteka!

The glare of shacks on the mountain top was visible from the detour of the tar road into the bush trails. Further ahead, four motor-bikers slowed down to let the police car go past. Children played outside. Pets roamed the streets. There was life in the village of Km25 – named after the distance separating it from the town of Caála in Huambo province. We went up bumpy roads. In the valley, a small lake surrounded by maize and sugar cane plantations. Charming vision of the lush green mountain chain silhouetted by a dying sun, on one side, the camp on the other side. Reports associated with this place are in stark contrast with the landscape – they are appallingly horrific.

On a fact-finding mission to the cult of self-proclaimed prophet Kalupeteka, the reporters from Rede Angola visited the place where it all happened, staying around for two hours. Escorted by a vehicle with a police siren, we reached Mount Sumi on a mid-Sunday afternoon. Approximately two weeks after the death of nine policemen, in circumstances still unclear, traces of severe events were still visible on the camp.
Small zinc-roof houses overlapped all the way to the mountaintop. A bigger house, called ‘logistic base’, shown as pastor Julino Kalupeteka’s dwelling, differed from all others. Just before the house, there was a pole next to a lamp post. António Mendes, provincial director of social media in Huambo, who drove the reporting team to the scene of the incidents, was not available for interviews – he just guided and followed. Police officers provided occasional explanations to most recurrent questions.

‘Catumbela died here,’ an agent said pointing to the pole – a common indicator to the otherwise different versions we were able to gather on the incidents. Another common factor suggested that agents had taken the warrant of arrest while a religious cult was being held. Women and children were chanting religious songs while men were putting into practice those acts which would lead to the death of the police agents. ‘The choir sang while officers were being slaughtered with sticks, machetes and stones. The police commander came running because the others were already here,’ someone said. After the massacre, there was silence. When backup police officers realized their colleagues were dead, after supposedly being warned by cult members who ordered them to collect the corpses, a shootout against civilians ensued. Sources close to civilian organizations and opposition political parties stated that Angolan Armed Forces and National Police started to shoot indiscriminately and burned everything. What happened exactly remains a mystery. Reality shows that this camp continues to show evidence of destruction. Burnt out houses and signs of arson in various places clearly stand out. Despite witnesses heard under anonymity referring to the noise of ‘bombs as in time of war’ and the explosions from heavy artillery used exclusively by the Army, as PKM machine guns and RPG7 grenade launchers, we did not see any bullet signs. The same cannot be said about the gross vandalizing of the place, hardly attributable to cross-fire.

A cult without worshippers

Before that fateful day, access to camp was preceded by three control posts. Now only yellow police tapes were left to demarcate a crime scene. We did not register the presence of soldiers on camp – the same camp where children were not allowed to go to school because Jesus never studied. The high level of destruction mirrored the utmost violence – a burnt-out car and several motorbikes. A bulldozer, used for agriculture, and an industrial generator, both charred, stood out in the idyllic landscape now transformed into a valley of horrors. Despite the gruesome scenery, the well-structured configuration of the camp was still noticeable. In the different sections of the camp, there was a main outdoor area reserved for cult practices and an open-air auditorium with rocks used as stools. Important religious announcements and notices on community life were divulged here. Warehouses were aligned according to the type of goods they stored. In one, we found salt, maize and beans in the other two. Perishables were kept in deep freezers. We counted two of these and a stove, both destroyed. Only the gas bottle was intact, laying a few metres from Kalupeteka’s house.

The last battle. Jesus is coming. Are you ready?

In this landscape, once a paradise on earth, traces of blood were visible in some places. In front of the cult leader’s house, there was an esplanade, an all-around observation post. It had electric current from the generator. It had running water. We saw the bathroom, in the rear of the house, and noticed the tiles, although the entrance was barred by corrugated iron sheets darkened by smoke. It was impossible to peep through the windows. Despite the poor housing conditions, the natives of Kalupeteka’s mountain did not live quite like in the time of Jesus. The satellite dish, with its missing top, did not take them to a heavenly world but brought the world to camp. Numerous details clearly evidenced a functional community system. Sporadic signs of modernity could be seen: a music mixer, a cell phone data board or a television card. In a notebook on the floor, we found important observations. No names or telephone numbers – simply bible quotes. ‘The last battle. Jesus is coming. Are you ready?’ This was the suggestive title on a cassette. Two huge suitcases were left behind. Women and children’s clothes were strewn around as well as shirts, jackets and men’s trousers, shoes and blue rubber boots! Somewhere else, two blackjacks. A bloody machete lying next to a child’s blue outfit precluded any conceived peaceful environment. We asked ourselves whether the Criminal Laboratory team was ever.

It was late afternoon and the wind carried a strong scent. It was, undoubtedly, something putrid. We dared not imagine what. The smell of roasted corn managed to conceal it. And the number of doves on top of the roof of pastor Kalupeteka’s house just kept increasing. And the wind. Again! This time it made a noise similar to a whistling sound. These whistles were a gentle reminder that people lived here, people who left almost no trace of their present location. Water gushed, non-stop, onto a blue basin. It dripped on the floor. It dispersed into the bush. Hundreds of plates, mugs, forks, knives and kitchen utensils led us to believe they were stored in the same place. Pots with parched food remnants were on the floor. Burners placed on three rocks, typical of rural areas, managed to survive the chaos. We tripped over firewood, jerry cans and perfume bottles. Crocs and children’s outfits caught our attention. They were just kids. Wherever they were now, they never had the opportunity to understand what happened. Camera clicks broke the silence. Shivering fits were unavoidable. Any resemblance to a haunted place was not a mere coincidence. When we left the place, only the doves could be seen perched on top of Kalupeteka’s house. Where are the village folk now, where are the worshippers?