Paul Mackenzie: Kenyan cult leader charged with 191 murders

Paul Mackenzie: Kenyan cult leader charged with 191 murders
Paul Mackenzie appears in the Shanzu Courts in Mombasa, Kenya, 18 January 2024EPA

A cult leader in Kenya has been charged with murder after more than 400 bodies were found buried in shallow graves in a remote forest in the east of the country.

Survivors and victims’ families have said Paul Mackenzie urged followers to fast in order to “go see Jesus”.

He and 29 others pleaded not guilty in a court in the coastal town of Malindi.

Mackenzie has already been charged with committing acts of terror, child cruelty and torture, which he denied.

Police and prosecutors allege that apart from starvation, some victims may have been strangled, suffocated or beaten to death using blunt objects.

The 30 accused have been charged with murdering 191 people.

“I’m still scared of him,” one survivor told the BBC 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 70km (43 miles) west of the town, together with other members of the church, she followed him there in 2022.

Workers take shelter while digging the ground to exhume bodies from the mass-grave site in Shakahola

AFP

Shakahola is sparsely populated and now under 24-hour police guard. The authorities have declared it a crime scene and access is forbidden.

Initially, the worshippers would travel there and return home. But from late 2022, the followers claim, 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.

That was it for the day.

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 required 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.

Man holding his hands out

Hassan Lali/BBC

Sixty-five-year-old Changawa Mangi is a village elder in Shakahola.

He said he had met Mackenzie when he went to buy land there saying he wanted to farm.

“We welcomed him.”

Over time, the residents started noticing that Mackenzie would host many people.

It was then that they found out that he ran a church, but that did not bother them.

If anything, their presence boosted local businesses as the church’s followers shopped there.

But that suddenly ended. Mackenzie’s followers stopped going to the village shops. Then the early warning signs started appearing.

Mr Mangi said three teenagers went to his house seeking help.

They looked emaciated. So, he fed them.

“For the first three days, one of them had a running stomach, and what came out looked like soil,” Mr Mangi said.

The community leader alerted his superiors in government, but three was a slow reaction.

Young men from the village came up with a plan to storm the area on their motorbikes. But they were met with hostility, repulsed by the guards and had two motorbikes set on fire.

It became clear they could only gain access under police escort.

But word was slowly getting out.

A man talking to a young person who has their back to the camera

Hassan Lali/BBC

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.

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,” Mr Wanje told the BBC.

The boy’s mother – Mr Wanje’s daughter – and her husband are still missing. He also rescued another child he found there.

Mr Mangi also helped with the rescue efforts.

“Some people were frail – looking like they’d die within hours,” he said.

Some were stronger but refused to be helped. They asked Mr Mangi: “Why are you disturbing us when we want to go see Jesus? Won’t you also die one day?”

When Stephen Mwiti, a 45-year-old father of six, heard about the rescue he thought he might find out what had happened to his children, who his wife had taken to the forest.

He showed a picture of the family to some of those rescued.

They positively identified his children by name and gave him the crushing news. “They said, ‘your children are no more. They were starved to death.'”

They told Mr Mwiti that the children – Jacob, Lillian and Angelina – had been buried in a mass grave with around seven others.

Hellen and Samwel were still alive when the two survivors were rescued but were on the fourth day of fasting so they suspected they would have died by the time they spoke to the distraught father.

A sixth child, who was born in Shakahola, had also died.

Man holding a photograph

Reuters

Neema, the woman who escaped, said mothers would be urged not to breastfeed their babies so that they would also “go to Jesus”.

The cult preached against modern medicine and urged members not to vaccinate children.

Mackenzie and his alleged associates have been in police custody since last April when he surrendered to the authorities following the discovery of bodies in the forest.

They denied forcing anyone to starve. At one point, Mackenzie complained to the court that police had denied him food while he was being held.

A BBC analysis of Mackenzie’s sermons on video do not show him directly ordering people to fast, but there are many references to followers sacrificing what they hold dear, including their lives.

But when it comes to the more than 400 bodies in the morgue only 39 have been matched with families through DNA testing.

Other relatives are still enduring an agonising wait

As for justice, “it can’t bring back my family”, said Mr Mwiti.

Related Topics

Around the BBC

Source: bbc.co.uk

By David Ryckman