Kenya beings handing over 429 bodies of doomsday cult victims to families: “They are only skeletons”


The Kenyan government on Tuesday began handing over 429 bodies of members of a doomsday cult at the center of a legal case that has shocked the country.

Exhumed bodies from a vast rural area in coastal Kenya have shown signs of starvation and strangulation. Cult leader Paul Mackenzie is accused of asking his followers to starve themselves to death to meet Jesus and now faces charges that include murder.

One tearful family received four bodies that were loaded into a hearse from a morgue in the Indian Ocean town of Malindi, said an AFP correspondent at the scene.

They are the first bodies to be handed over to their relatives for burial after months of painstaking work to identify them using DNA.

“It is a relief that we finally have the bodies but it is also disheartening that they are only skeletons,” William Ponda, 32, told AFP, saying he has lost his mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the tragedy.

“I do not have any hope that we will find the other members of the family.”

Mortuary personnel pull a cart with the remains of a victim of a Kenyan starvation cult at the Malindi Sub-County Hospital Mortuary in Malindi on March 26, 2024. 

LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

Authorities are using DNA testing to help identify bodies and their families. On Tuesday, the first bodies were handed over to relatives. Emotions ran high at the Malindi mortuary as families collected loved ones for reburial. Some wailed, overwhelmed.

Mackenzie and dozens of his associates were charged in February with the torture and murder of 191 children. The trial begins April 23. Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki has declared Mackenzie’s Good News International Ministries a criminal organized group.

Mackenzie is serving a separate one-year prison sentence after being found guilty of operating a film studio and producing films without a valid license.

Some outraged Kenyans have asked how authorities didn’t notice any sign of the mass deaths underway.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission last week said police failed to act on reports that could have prevented the deaths in the remote Shakahola area. Several reports had been filed at police stations by people whose relatives had entered the forested area.

The case emerged last year when police rescued 15 emaciated parishioners from Mackenzie’s church in Kilifi county in Kenya’s southeast. Four died after the group was taken to a hospital.

Last year, Kenyan President William Ruto compared the starvation deaths to terrorist acts.

“What we are seeing … is akin to terrorism,” Ruto said. “Mr. Makenzi … pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal.”

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.

In 2022, the body of a British woman who died at the house of a different cult leader while on holiday in Kenya was exhumed, the family’s lawyer said. 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.

AFP contributed to this report.


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