As the number of victims linked to a suspected starvation cult in Kenya climbed to 95 on Wednesday, relatives have been anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones at a morgue in the coastal town of Malinda.
Last week, investigators unearthed mass graves on the property of cult leader Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, accused of driving his followers to death by preaching that starvation was the only path to God.
The discovery of dozens of bodies buried in the Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi shocked the country.
Bethy Kahindi, who last saw her sister almost a year ago, said she had little hope as she waits at the Malindi public hospital where the bodies of victims linked to the cult have filled its morgue.
“I’m here looking for my sister and her children. We were all members of the church when it first started, but I left when they started introducing us to the cult and asked me to shave my dreadlocks. That’s when I left. ”
The Red Cross has set up a help desk at the hospital to document the missing and assisting families seeking answers about the fate of their loved ones.
It says 314 people have been reported missing so far, including 150 minors.
“We have people outside this country, we have people from Uganda, we have people from Tanzania, we have people from Nigeria, who have actually registered here saying that their family members actually came to Shakahola for this activity,” said Red Cross regional manager Hassan Musa.
The organisation says it expects the death toll to rise and investigators and forensic units continue to comb the area around the 325-hectare ranch owned by Nthenge. Only 39 people so far have been found alive.
“We don’t know how many more graves, how many more bodies, we are likely to discover,” Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said during a visit to the site on Tuesday, adding the crimes were serious enough to warrant terrorism charges against Nthenge.
The unfolding Shakahola Forest Massacre is the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship. Prima facie, large- scale crimes under Kenyan law as well as international law have been committed. While the State remains respectful of religious…
— Kithure Kindiki (@KindikiKithure) April 23, 2023
The self-proclaimed leader of the Good News International Church was arrested almost two weeks ago follow a tip-off. Police say they have taken 22 people into custody during the search and rescue operation on the land.
Nthenge has denied any wrongdoing. As the investigation unfolds, questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite the fact that he had attracted police attention as far back as six years ago.
He is due to appear in court on 2 May.
The gruesome events have prompted calls for a crackdown on fringe religious outfits in the largely Christian country.