Mackenzie’s name alone is now enough to instill fear in Kenyans. Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Mackenzie Nthenge is in detention and is due to appear in court on Friday May 5, after the exhumation in the space of two weeks of 109 remains on his land of more than 300 hectares in the Shakahola forest, near the town of Malindi, on the east coast of Kenya. Followers of his sect, the Good News International Church, were called upon to fast to death to “meet Jesus.” Some of them are still found alive, in critical condition.
Shakahola, “sacred” land
Victor Kaudo has been following the excavations since their beginning. This activist, head of a human rights organization in Malindi, was among the first to alert the police to what was happening in Shakahola. Sitting behind his desk, he scrolls through the photos on his phone: earthen houses where followers lived, survivors rescued with protruding bones or mass graves ranging from one to two meters deep.
The land of Shakahola is considered “sacred”, explains Victor Kaudo, and has been divided into several “villages”: Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem… It is located in a remote place, about sixty kilometers from Malindi. To access it by car, the investigators had to clear it.
The inhabitants of the neighboring village, Langobaya, used to see worshipers coming to do their shopping. Pastor Mackenzie was known there but officially closed his church in 2019 and presented himself as a farmer. “It’s true that we wondered why so many people came to Shakahola, recognizes Musa Menza, taxi driver, resident of Langobaya. But we could not imagine the extent of what was happening there! »
According to the investigators, the majority of the exhumed bodies are those of children, which Victor Kaudo explains by the calendar of the sect. “The faithful are convinced that the end of time will come in June, he says. The children had to fast first to meet their “Maker” then the women and finally the men, Mackenzie last. »
The belief is so strong that relief missions have been “difficult”, continues the activist. “When I wanted to give a drink to a woman survivor on the verge of death, she repeated that I was the devil, does he remember. She wanted to die as a “saint” and I interrupted her process. »
Early results from autopsies show that the majority of suspected worshipers died of starvation. However, forensic experts also found marks of assassination on the bodies of children: signs of death by asphyxiation, head trauma or strangulation in particular. The search is not finished but the excavations have been suspended because the Malindi hospital morgue is full. The human toll is therefore likely to increase. The Kenya Red Cross has registered nearly 500 reports of missing persons at its on-site tracing office.
The long wait for families
Inside the morgue, among the staff in white coveralls, families wait, hoping to hear from their loved ones. Habel Farisi is accompanied by his brother-in-law. He is looking for his sister, Judith Farasi, who left to live in Shakahola in 2020 with her three children aged 14, 10 and 7, who had dropped out of school against her husband’s advice. “We tried to get her out of there but she refused. She was convinced by the sermons she heard, explain Abel. Mackenzie kept saying that going to school, having an identity card or working are sins… My sister kept saying that she was going to meet Jesus when he died. »
Judith Farasi’s phone has been off for several weeks, but Habel and her brother-in-law remain hopeful of finding her and her three children alive. This hope, Roseline Asena has lost it. She traveled from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, because her brother, Kevin Asena, is among the alleged accomplices of the pastor. Roseline discovered his arrest while watching the news on television.
Kevin Asena joined the cult between 2016 and 2017, then convinced his wife to join. The latter was rescued but their five children, aged 1 to 15, remain missing. Roseline does not expect to see them alive again, some survivors told her that four of them had been buried. Only the eldest could be alive.
A question haunts him: “How could my brother, who wouldn’t have hurt a fly, end up in such a situation? » Roseline Asena wants to understand, for her son, she says, so that the same thing doesn’t happen to him. On Tuesday, May 2, she was among the first to arrive to attend an audience with Pastor Mackenzie and his alleged accomplices, including his brother.
The legal system in question
Several families had made the trip. The courtroom in Malindi was full. Paul Mackenzie Nthenge arrived in a pink striped shirt and matching sports jacket. Looking serene, he exchanged a few words while laughing with his fellow prisoners. This former taxi driver opened his Church in 2003. His YouTube channel now has seven thousand subscribers. The prosecutor announced her intention to prosecute him for terrorism, among other charges. He was transferred to Mombasa where there is a competent court for this type of prosecution. Another very popular pastor, Ezekiel Odero, was also arrested on April 27 on suspicion of involvement in what is now called « The Massacre of Shakahola “. He was released Thursday, May 3 in exchange for payment of bail.
Paul Mackenzie Nthenge had already been arrested in 2017 and 2019, because he advocated, among other things, the schooling of children. He was detained again in March after two children starved to death but was released on bail. These previous arrests raise many questions. How could such a tragedy unfold without anyone intervening? Habel Farisi explains having sought the help of the police, Victor Kaudo too, without success.
Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki discussed these potential flaws on Monday 1is May, during a visit to the Malindi hospital morgue. He explained that “all public officials in office when the events at Shakahola took place are going to be mutated”, regardless of their rank. A commission will also be set up to investigate « the actions or lack of action Who could have allowed the death of so many people », said the minister. For Roseline Asena, this investigation is essential. “So many innocent lives have been lost, she says. Families need justice. »
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