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Kenyans seek relatives among starvation cult victims

2023-04-26T13:14:55Z

Kenya police officers patrol near the home of a suspected follower of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, whose members believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya April 25, 2023. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

Dozens of people converged on a morgue in the Kenyan town of Malindi on Wednesday to seek news of relatives they fear were among at least 89 followers of a cult who are thought to have starved themselves to death in the hope of going to heaven.

The morgue has rapidly filled up since authorities started digging up human remains on Friday from shallow graves discovered in an 800-acre area of the Shakahola forest, where the self-proclaimed Good News International Church was based.

The deaths are one of the worst cult-related tragedies in recent history and the toll is expected to rise further, with the Kenyan Red Cross saying more than 300 people have now been reported as missing.

“My heart is aching so much,” said Mwachai Jombo, 48, a resident of Malindi on Kenya’s coast who came to the morgue in search of his missing wife, son and two daughters.

He said his wife had joined the cult and moved to the forest three years ago, taking all the family’s household items and three of the children with her. He recounted that he had sent her 7,000 shillings ($50) for their upkeep, but she had given most of the money to the cult.

Jombo had also visited the hospital in Malindi, where survivors were being treated, and one of them had told him his children were alive. He had no confirmation of the fate of any of his relatives and was desperate for news.

So far, the authorities have said that 81 bodies were found in mass graves, while eight people were found alive but later died. The rescue of the two women on Wednesday brings the number of survivors to 36.

The Red Cross has donated a refrigerated container on a truck to help preserve some of the corpses as the morgue is now too full.

Red Cross staff in Malindi told Reuters exhumations had been suspended on Wednesday so investigators could focus on finding survivors scattered in makeshift camps spread around the forest.

Two emaciated women were found alive early on Wednesday and were being evacuated to Malindi’s hospital, they said.

Reuters reporters were granted access to a ward where four women survivors were being treated. All four were weak and emaciated, and they avoided eye contact with other people. They all had very short hair – in line with the cult’s rules for women, according to relatives.

One of them, Shamim Salim, 26, was being spoon-fed soup by a well-wisher. She said she had bought three acres of land in the Shakahola forest, where she lived with her husband and three children. They were still in the forest, she said. She declined to speak about the church’s teachings or her experiences.

Kenyan newspapers reported on Wednesday that the cult followers had named some of their forest settlements Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Judea.

The cult’s leader, Paul Mackenzie, surrendered to police on April 14 and is being held alongside 14 other cult members, according to police. Kenyan media have reported that Mackenzie is refusing food and water.

“Mackenzie does not deserve to live,” said Naomi Kahindi, who was at the morgue searching for the bodies of her 45-year-old sister and her sister’s five children and grandchild. Kahindi said police had told her they were among the dead.

Chrispas Karisa Jefa, who lives in a village near the Shakahola forest, said cult followers had persuaded his sister to join them, and had taken her away.

“When we went to fetch her and got her back home, we were surprised that she escaped again and returned (to the cult).

We wondered what kind of power they used.”

($1 = 135.7500 Kenyan shillings)

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