Watch CBS News

Kenya starvation cult death toll hits 90 as morgues fill up: "Nothing prepares you for shallow mass graves of children"

The death toll from a suspected Kenyan starvation cult climbed to 90 on Tuesday, including many children, as police said investigators were pausing the search for bodies because the morgues were full.

The discovery of mass graves in Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi has shocked Kenyans, with cult leader Paul Mackenzie Nthenge accused of driving his followers to death by preaching that starvation was the only path to God.

There are fears more corpses could be found as search teams unearthed 17 bodies on Tuesday, with investigators saying children made up the majority of victims of what has been dubbed the "Shakahola Forest Massacre."

Workers take shelter while digging the ground to exume bodies from the mass-grave site in Shakahola, outside the coastal town of Malindi, on April 25, 2023.  YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Kenya's government has vowed to crack down on fringe religious outfits in the largely Christian country.

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

"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."

The majority of the dead were children, according to three sources close to the investigation, highlighting the macabre nature of the cult's alleged practices which included urging parents to starve their offspring.

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

An officer from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) also confirmed that children accounted for more than half of the victims, followed by women.

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

He said 50 to 60 percent of the victims were children, whose bodies were found wrapped in cotton shrouds.

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

Investigators told AFP 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 told AFP 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.

"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.

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

"We pray that God will help them to go through the trauma, to help them recover and tell the story of how one time a fellow Kenyan, a fellow human, decided to hurt so many people, heartlessly, hiding under the Holy Scriptures," Kindiki said of the survivors, according to Reuters.

It is believed that some followers of Mackenzie's Good News International Church could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola and at risk of death if not quickly found.

Kenya's President William Ruto has vowed to take action against rogue pastors like Mackenzie "who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology", comparing them to terrorists.

As the investigation unfolds, questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Mackenzie attracting police attention six years ago.

The televangelist had been arrested in 2017 on charges of "radicalization" after urging families not to send their children to school, saying education was not recognized by the Bible.

Mackenzie was arrested again last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.

Kenya Cult Deaths
The exhumed bodies of victims of a religious cult are laid out in the village of Shakahola, near the coastal city of Malindi, in southern Kenya Sunday, April 23, 2023.  / AP

He was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($700) before surrendering to police following the Shakahola raid.

Mackenzie is due to appear in court on May 2.

"We do not expect that Mr. Mackenzie will get out of jail for the rest of his life," said Kindiki said, according to Reuters,

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.

Last year, the body of a British woman who died at the house of a different cult leader while on holiday in Kenya was exhumed. Luftunisa Kwandwalla, 44, was visiting the coastal city of Mombasa when she died in August 2020, and was buried a day later, but her family has claimed foul play.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.