A cult leader has been charged with murdering 191 children whose bodies were among more than 400 buried in a forest.
Paul Mackenzie is accused of ordering the followers of his Good News International Church to starve themselves and their children so they could get into heaven before the world ended.
Mackenzie, along with 29 associates appeared in court in Malindi, Kenya, on Tuesday 6 February 2024. One of them was found mentally unfit to stand trial.
More than 400 bodies have been exhumed, and his followers lived in several secluded settlements across an 800-acre area in the Shakahola forest.
Mackenzie, a former taxi driver, forbade cult members from sending their kids to school and from going to hospital when they were ill, branding such institutions as Satanic, as some of his followers later said.
Survivors and victims’ families have said that Mackenzie urged followers to fast in order to “go see Jesus,” as reported by the BBC.
Police and prosecutors allege that apart from starvation, some victims may have been strangled, suffocated or beaten to death using blunt objects.
“I’m still scared of him,” one survivor told the publication when asked what she would say to Mackenzie if she ever met him.
“I don’t want to ever meet him,” said the 29-year-old mother of four. Neema—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 that its leader had moved to Shakahola, the forest about 70 kilometres (43 miles) west of the town, together with other members of the church, 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 and access is forbidden.
According to the BBC, initially, the worshippers would travel there and return home. But from late 2022, the followers claim that 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 against her will there and women were repeatedly raped by the guards.
“The preaching stopped,” she said. “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 said they were told there would be no more food or water.
“We’d sneak into the bush and pick wild berries to feed on when the guards took breaks to have their meals,” she added. They would also scoop water from the ground and drink from their hands.
When it all became unbearable, she plotted with two of her friends to escape. It was not easy to hatch a plan as it was forbidden to chat in groups. They were told to stay silent.
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 said. But the desperation to escape pushed them on. Luckily, when they got to the main road, they met a motorist who took them to hospital.
Hundreds were not as lucky—including many children. They were the first group identified for fasting until they “went to sleep,” according to survivors.
Women were to follow them. Francis Wanje, a 59-year-old high school teacher from Mombasa, had heard that his daughter and her family may have moved to the forest and went to investigate.
He informed the police but said they did not act right away. What he saw at Shakahola shocked him.
Sadly, 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 will never forget! He knew he would be next but he was lucky he was rescued,” Wanje told the BBC.
The boy’s mother—Wanje’s daughter—and her husband are still missing. He also rescued another child he found there. Mangi also helped with the rescue efforts.
Mackenzie’s lawyer says he is cooperating with the investigation into the deaths. In April 2023, Mackenzie was arrested and had already been charged with terrorism-related crimes, manslaughter, and torture.
He was also convicted in December of last year of producing and distributing films without a licence and sentenced to 12 months in prison.
The 30 defendants are next due to appear in court today, Wednesday 7 March, for a bond hearing.