Kenya starvation cult ‘massacre’ toll reaches 90

The majority of the bodies exhumed are children, says a forensic investigator

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Volunteers exhume bodies of suspected followers of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, whose members believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya April 25, 2023. -Reuters
Volunteers exhume bodies of suspected followers of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, whose members believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya April 25, 2023. -Reuters

SHAKAHOLA, KENYA: The death toll from a presumed Kenyan starvation cult rose to 90 on Tuesday, including multiple minors, as police said investigators were halting the hunt for bodies as the local morgues were full.

Kenyans have been shocked by the discovery of mass graves in Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi, with local priest Paul Mackenzie Nthenge charged with prompting his disciples to death by orating that starvation was the singular course to God.

Authorities fear more bodies could be found as search teams exhumed 17 bodies on Tuesday, with investigators saying minors make up the majority of victims of what has been dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre".

Kenya's government has pledged to take strict action against fringe religious outfits in the country with a Christian majority.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters: "We don't know how many more graves, how many more bodies, we are likely to discover, the crimes were serious enough to warrant terrorism charges against Nthenge.

"Those who urged others to fast and die were eating and drinking and they were purporting that they were preparing them to meet their creator."

According to three sources close to the investigators, the majority of the dead were children. The sources highlighted the dreadful nature of the cult's practices which included encouraging parents to starve their heirs.

"The majority of the bodies exhumed are children," a forensic investigator told on condition of anonymity.

An officer from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) also established that kids accounted for more than half of the sufferers, followed by females.

The cult appeared to require children to starve first, followed by women, and finally men, says Hussein Khalid, executive director of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police to Nthenge's activities.

50 to 60% of the victims were children, whose bodies were found wrapped in cotton shrouds, he added.

He said: "The horror that we have seen over the last four days is traumatising. Nothing prepares you for shallow mass graves of children."

Investigators say they found bodies squeezed into shallow pits -- with up to six people inside one grave -- while others were simply left exposed in the open air.

As the fatalities mounted, the DCI officer said that search teams would have to pause their efforts until autopsies were completed.

"We won’t dig for a couple of days, so we have time to do the autopsies because the mortuaries are full," he said on condition of anonymity.

The state-run Malindi Sub-County Hospital had warned that its morgue was running out of space to store the bodies and was already operating well over capacity.

Hospital administrator Said Ali said: "The hospital mortuary has a capacity of 40 bodies, and officials had reached out to the Kenya Red Cross for refrigerated containers."

Kindiki said 34 people had been found alive so far in the 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland.