One month after the horrors that unfolded in the “starvation cult” led by a pastor named Paul Mackenzie in a forest deep inside Kenya, authorities in the African country report that the death toll in the incident has already reached 201, with an additional 610 people missing.
Signs of starvation were discovered on the bodies of the most recent victims identified. In the international media, the incident is seen as the deadliest cult killings in modern history, and in Kenya itself it is referred to as the "Shakahola Massacre," named after the forest in the southeastern part of the country where the incident took place.
The incident was exposed in mid-April when Kenya’s police found 89 bodies of members of the extreme Christian cult Good News International Church in the Shakahola forest.
The victims were buried after, according to suspicions, they starved themselves to death – or were starved by others – believing that this would lead them to paradise and meeting with Jesus.
The one who instilled in them the belief that they should starve themselves was the cult’s leader Paul Mackenzie, a former taxi driver who became a priest in the early 2000s and became known for the recorded sermons he used to broadcast on his television channel.
According to testimonies, Mackenzie convinced the cult members that the Day of Judgment, in which the world would be destroyed, was approaching, and persuaded them to come to his compound in the Shakahola Forest, claiming it would serve as their refuge for the impending apocalypse.
In the forest, he released the believers among areas he named after biblical places like Nazareth, Bethlehem, Judea, Jericho, Jerusalem and Galilee.
He baptized his disciples in reservoirs of water, and then he demanded that they fast to death while convincing them that their meeting with Jesus was fast approaching.
In Kenya and around the world, the incident caused shock, especially considering the fact that Mackenzie had been arrested and released several times over the years due to reports of his questionable actions.
As early as 2017, authorities raided his cult compound and rescued dozens of children, some of whom testified that he indoctrinated them with "satanic" beliefs and caused them to abandon their families and schools.
In March of 2023, he was arrested on suspicion of encouraging a couple to murder their children and, as a result, the children were starved to death and strangled. He claimed at the time that he was unaware of the parents' actions, and was later released on bail.
According to recent testimonies received in the past few weeks, at some point after the beginning of 2023, Mackenzie informed the members of his cult that the end of the world was closer than originally believed and that it would come on April 15 instead of August.
As a result, suspicions say that Mackenzie devised a mass suicide plan in which cult members would starve themselves to death. According to a testimony obtained by the New York Times, the first to be killed were the children, who were sent out in the sun to starve so that their deaths would be quick.
Then, in March and April, it was the women's turn to starve themselves. The men were supposed to be next in line, and according to the plan, Mackenzie was supposed to be the last to commit suicide, only after "escorting" all his followers to a "meeting with Jesus."
On April 14th, the day before the supposed "apocalypse" was to occur, Kenya police raided Mackenzie's compound following information received about the ongoing incidents there, and rescued 15 people who were starving themselves at that time.
At the same time, however, mass graves containing dozens of bodies of cult members were discovered, and subsequently another eight survivors died due to the severe malnutrition they had suffered.
Mackenzie turned himself in to the authorities and was arrested alongside his wife and 16 additional suspects, and is expected to be charged with murder and terrorism.
The full extent of Mackenzie’s killings isn’t certain at this point. By the beginning of this week, close to 200 bodies were found in dozens of graves within the cult compound.
At the same time, however, over 600 missing individuals belonging to the cult were reported, who are still being located. Autopsies conducted on over 100 of the discovered bodies revealed that the victims died from starvation, strangulation, lack of oxygen and injuries inflicted by sharp objects.
Local media also reported that some of the victims' bodies were missing internal organs. Some of the survivors found within the compound were so weak that they were unable to walk unassisted.
Kenya’s government is struggling to explain how such a disaster could have occurred in a country that presents itself as one of the most modern and stable in Africa.
President William Ruto ordered the establishment of an inquiry committee to determine the possibility that the authorities were aware of Mackenzie's actions, as various witnesses claim, but failed to intervene for a long period of time.
Last week, Ruto admitted that the authorities were supposed to prevent the mass deaths but failed to do so, stating, "I am not taking it lightly. I am taking responsibility that as president this should not have happened. And certainly, some people who are responsible for this failure on the part of government will have to give an account,"
Questioning freedom of religion
The "Shakahola Massacre" raises questions in Kenya regarding religious freedom in the country, which is enshrined in Kenya’s constitution and allows significant autonomy for pastors or evangelists like Mackenzie, who operate independently without the oversight commonly seen in the hierarchical Catholic system.
Kenya, with a population of around 55 million, is a relatively religious country, and cults are a common phenomenon there. Following the revelations of Mackenzie's actions, leaders of other religious communities, suspected of abusing their followers, have also been questioned by the police in recent weeks.
Human rights activists have been particularly shocked by the willingness of Mackenzie’s many devout followers to resist their basic instinct to eat and survive in order to obey the instructions of their pastor.
One activist, Victor Kaudo, told The New York Times that after people who escaped the cult told him about what was happening inside, and he tried to save some of those who remained there.
However, the followers were so indoctrinated and obedient to Mackenzie that instead of accepting help, they cursed at Kaudo, calling him the "enemy of Jesus." “I wanted these starving people to survive, but they wanted to die and meet Jesus,” he said.
According to estimations, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased Mackenzie's popularity among his followers, as some saw it as a sign that the end of the world was indeed approaching, as he claimed.
In his sermons, Mackenzie questioned the most fundamental beliefs of his cult members, claiming that demonic forces had taken control of the world's power structures.
He persuaded mothers to avoid medical check-ups during their pregnancy and to refrain from vaccinating their children, arguing that the attempt to educate them in schools was an evil act aimed at extorting money from them and turning their children into homosexuals and lesbians.