Kenyan cult leader Paul Mackenzie has been charged with murder after the discovery of over 400 bodies in shallow graves in a remote forest. Survivors reported Mackenzie urged followers to fast to “see Jesus.” He and 29 others pleaded not guilty in court.
Mackenzie faces additional charges of terror acts, child cruelty, and torture, all of which he denies.
Authorities allege victims may have been strangled, suffocated, or beaten to death.
Villagers noticed Mackenzie’s large gatherings, later discovering he ran a church. Attempts to rescue victims faced hostility. Mackenzie’s sermons hinted at followers sacrificing lives.
“I’m still scared of him,” one survivor told the BBC when asked what she would say to Mackenzie if she ever met him.
“I don’t want to ever meet him,” said the 29-year-old mother of four.
Neema – not her real name – had been a follower of the Good News International Church in Malindi until it was closed down in 2019.
When she heard that its leader had moved to Shakahola, the forest about 70km (43 miles) west of the town, together with other members of the church, she followed him there in 2022.
Shakahola is sparsely populated and now under 24-hour police guard. The authorities have declared it a crime scene and access is forbidden.
Initially, the worshippers would travel there and return home. But from late 2022, the followers claim, they were not allowed to leave.
Neema was two months pregnant with her fourth child when she went to the forest for the last time. She said she was held against her will there and women were repeatedly raped by the guards.
“The preaching stopped,” she said. “They said we’re now done with teachings we only wait to meet Jesus.”
At first, those in the forest would be given half a cup of tea and a slice of bread in the morning.
That was it for the day.
When it all became unbearable, she plotted with two of her friends to escape. It was not easy to hatch a plan as it was forbidden to chat in groups. They were required to stay silent.
They waited for the guards to take their usual meal break, closed the door to their mud-walled hut, made a hole in the rear wall and ran.
“We were weak,” Neema said.
But the desperation to escape pushed them on.
Luckily, when they got to the main road, they met a motorist who took them to hospital.
Hundreds were not as lucky – including many children.
Only 39 bodies have been identified through DNA testing, leaving many families awaiting closure. Justice is sought, but for grieving families, it can’t undo their losses.