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.”
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.
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.
Investigators said 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.
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.
Kindiki said 34 people had been found alive so far in the 800-acre area of woodland.
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 cult’s leader, Paul Mackenzie, was arrested on April 14 following a tip-off that suggested the existence of shallow graves containing the bodies of at least 31 of his followers. National Police chief Japhet Koome said 14 other cult members were in custody.
Mackenzie was arraigned on April 15 at Malindi Law Courts, where the judge gave police 14 days to conduct investigations while he was kept in detention.
Ruto said he had instructed law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the matter as a criminal case not linked to any religion.