Kenyan police have begun marking out the locations of more than a dozen suspected graves in the east of the country thought to contain the remains of followers of a Christian cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, two witnesses said.
On Thursday, homicide detectives marked out patches of bare earth with sticks and yellow tape in Shakahola forest in Kilifi County, near the location where police rescued 15 members of the Good News International Church last week.
On Friday, authorities discovered seven bodies — including that of an adult and two children — while digging up sites suspected to be secret graves used to bury starved followers of Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s church.
The seven were found after digging up two mapped sites out of a total of 32, meaning the forensic team has 29 grave sites to go before completing its mission. This also means that the number of bodies of suspected victims of starvation will likely go up.
The Friday recovery brings the death toll to 17 since the news of followers of controversial Pastor Paul Mackenzie starved themselves to see “Jesus”. Sixteen followers have been rescued so far, including a 55-year-old man found Friday in a hideout.
Mackenzie was arrested following a tip-off that also suggested the existence of shallow graves belonging to at least 31 of his followers.
On Friday, DCI detectives had enlisted the help of locals to help dig up the locations on the third day of forensic experts and crime scene analysts camping in the village.
Police said the 15 rescued worshippers had been told to starve themselves to death so they could meet their creator. Four of them died before they reached hospital.
Shallow graves identified
Matthew Shipeta from Haki Africa, a human rights group, said he had seen at least 15 shallow graves in the forest.
"Today, we will just identify where the shallow graves are located, as we wait for direction from the government pathologist who will authorise the exhumation of the bodies," he told Citizen TV.
Helen Mikali, the manager of a children's home who was also helping investigators, said she had visited several nearby villages where parents and children had disappeared.
"Personally, I have visited about 18 children's graves," Mikali told Citizen TV. She did not say how she knew the graves contained the remains of children.
Last month police arrested and later released Mackenzie in connection with the deaths of two boys in Magarini, also in Kilifi County. In an affidavit dated March 23, police said the parents of the two boys had starved them and then suffocated them on the advice of Mackenzie.
Remote and inaccessible
The remoteness and inaccessibility of Shakahola is compounded by the isolation in which the village stands. Most dwellings here are clusters of traditional houses patched here and there, and because of the scattered nature of these villages, it has been difficult for the government to provide adequate security.
Locals interviewed by the Nation said this has left them vulnerable and any attempt to snitch on the cult was met with attacks and death threats.
There is also the likely presence of non-locals in the group, who show up there in the middle of nowhere, ready to starve themselves to death.
The exhumation of five children’s bodies in the seven recovered on Friday shows the possibility of parents bringing more than one of their children to the ‘starve-to-death’ site.
Langobaya Police Station, which is the closest to the village, hardly serves its purpose as it is not properly equipped. During operations to flush out and rescue the cult members three weeks ago, police had to get logistical and vehicle support from Malindi, some 80km away.