Kenya starvation cult toll climbs to 83 as more bodies found
Security personnel carry a rescued young person from the forest in Shakahola, outside the coastal town of Malindi, on April 23, 2023. Twenty-one bodies have been exhumed in Kenya while investigating a cult whose followers are believed to have starved themselves to death, police sources said on April 22, 2023, warning the toll could rise. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)
(AFP) - Kenyan investigators on Tuesday exhumed 10 more bodies from mass graves linked to a starvation cult, bringing the total number of victims to 83, an AFP journalist at the scene said, as fears grow of the toll spiking even further.
Police have spent days scouring the Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi after receiving a tip-off about a cult led by Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who urged his followers to starve to death in order to find God.
The 10 bodies recovered on Tuesday included three children, as emergency workers clad in white jumpsuits exhumed their remains from shallow graves and also found two emaciated survivors, according to the AFP journalist.
The grim discovery has sent shockwaves through the country, prompting President William Ruto to pledge a crackdown on "unacceptable" religious movements.
As the fatalities mounted, authorities at the state-run Malindi Sub-County Hospital warned Tuesday that the morgue was running out of space to store the bodies and already operating well over capacity.
"The hospital mortuary has a capacity of 40 bodies," said the hospital's administrator Said Ali, adding that officials had reached out to the Kenya Red Cross for refrigerated containers.
It is believed that some followers of the Good News International Church could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola and at risk of death if not quickly found.
Hussein Khalid, executive director of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police, urged the authorities to send more rescuers to scour the 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland for survivors.
"Each day that passes by there is very high possibility that more are dying," he told AFP.
"The horror that we have seen over the last four days is traumatising. Nothing prepares you for shallow mass graves of children."
Investigators told AFP they found bodies squeezed into shallow pits -- with up to six people inside one grave -- while others were simply left outside on the ground.
Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome told reporters on Monday that 29 people had been rescued and taken to hospital.
- 'Unacceptable ideology' -
Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki has announced plans to visit the site on Tuesday, while Ruto has vowed to take action against rogue pastors like Nthenge "who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology", comparing them to terrorists.
As the Kenyan authorities try to uncover the true scale of what is being dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre", questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Nthenge attracting police attention six years ago.
The televangelist had been arrested in 2017 on charges of "radicalisation" after urging families not to send their children to school, saying education was not recognised by the Bible.
Nthenge was arrested again last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.
He was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($700) before surrendering to police following the Shakahola raid.
The case is due to be heard on May 2.
The Kenya Red Cross said 212 people had been reported missing to its support staff in Malindi, out of which two were reunited with their families.
The case has prompted calls for tighter control of fringe denominations in a country with a troubling history of self-declared pastors and cults that have dabbled in criminality.
© Agence France-Presse