A CULT leader in Kenya has been charged with murder after more than 400 bodies were found buried in shallow graves in a remote forest in the east of the country.
Survivors and victims’ families have said Paul Mackenzie urged followers to fast in order to “go see Jesus”.
He and 29 others pleaded not guilty in a court at the coastal town of Malindi.
Mackenzie has already been charged with committing acts of terror, child cruelty and torture, which he has denied.
Police officers and prosecutors allege that apart from starvation, some victims may have been strangled, suffocated or beaten to death.
The 30 accused have been charged with murdering 191 people.
“I’m still scared of him,” one survivor told the BBC.
“I don’t want to ever meet him,” said a mother of four.
Neema (29) – not her real name – had been a follower of the Good News International Church in Malindi until it was closed down in 2019.
When she heard its leader had moved to Shakahola, the forest about 70km west of the town, she followed him there in 2022.
Shakahola is sparsely populated and now under 24-hour police guard.
The authorities have declared it a crime scene.
Initially, worshippers would travel there and return home. But from late 2022, the followers claim, they were not allowed to leave.
Neema was two months pregnant with her fourth child when she went to the forest for the last time. She said she was held there against her will and women were repeatedly raped by the guards.
“The preaching stopped,” she says. “They said we’re now done with teachings, we only wait to meet Jesus.”
At first, those in the forest would be given half a cup of tea and a slice of bread in the morning.
But after some time, Neema says they were told there would be no more food or water.
“We’d sneak into the bush and pick wild berries to feed on,” she says.
They would also scoop water from the ground and drink from their hands.
When it all became unbearable, Neema plotted with two of her friends to escape.
They waited for the guards to take their usual meal break, closed the door to their mud-walled hut, made a hole in the rear wall and ran.
“We were weak,” Neema says.
Luckily, when they got to the main road, they met a motorist who took them to hospital.
Hundreds were not as lucky.
Changawa Mangi (65) is a village elder in Shakahola.
He says he met Mackenzie when he went to buy land there, saying he wanted to farm.
“We welcomed him.”
Over time, the residents started noticing that Mackenzie would host many people.
It was then that they found out that he ran a church, but that did not bother them.
If anything, their presence boosted local businesses as the church’s followers shopped there.
But that suddenly ended. Mackenzie’s followers stopped going to the village shops. Then the early warning signs started appearing.
Mangi says three teenagers went to his house seeking help.
They looked emaciated. So, he fed them.
“For the first three days, one of them had a running stomach, and what came out looked like soil,” Mangi says.
The community leader alerted his superiors in the government, but their reaction was slow.
Young men from the village came up with a plan to storm the area on their motorbikes. But they were met with hostility and had two motorbikes set on fire.
It became clear they could only gain access under police escort.
Francis Wanje (59), a high school teacher from Mombasa, had heard his daughter and her family may have moved to the forest, and went to investigate.
He informed the police, but says they did not act right away.
What he saw at Shakahola shocked him.
He was too late to rescue some of his grandchildren, but he found his nine-year-old grandson.
“He told me he saw [his siblings] die, he saw them being starved by their parents, and that is a story he will never forget. He knew he would be next, but he was lucky he was rescued,” Wanje has told the BBC.
The boy’s mother and her husband are still missing. He also rescued another child he found there.
Mangi also helped with the rescue efforts.
“Some people were frail – looking like they’d die within hours,” he says.
Some were stronger, but refused to be helped.
When Stephen Mwiti (45), the father of six, heard about the rescue, he thought he might find out what had happened to his children, whom his wife had taken to the forest.
He showed a picture of the family to some of those rescued.
They positively identified his children by name and gave him the crushing news.
“They said your children are no more. They were starved to death,” he says.
They told Mwiti his children had been buried in a mass grave with around seven others.
Neema, the woman who escaped, says mothers would be urged not to breastfeed their babies so that they would also “go to Jesus”.
The cult preached against modern medicine and urged members not to vaccinate their children.
Mackenzie and his alleged associates have been in police custody since last April when he surrendered to the authorities, following the discovery of bodies in the forest.
They denied forcing anyone to starve. At one point, Mackenzie complained to the court that the police had denied him food while he was being held.
A BBC analysis of Mackenzie’s sermons on video do not show him directly ordering people to fast, but there are many references to followers sacrificing what they hold dear, including their lives.
Of the more than 400 bodies in the morgue, only 39 have been matched with families through DNA testing. Other relatives are still enduring an agonising wait,
As for justice, “it can’t bring back my family”, says Mwiti.
– BBC News
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