Kenyan families weep for starvation cult victims as first bodies released

  • World
  • Tuesday, 26 Mar 2024

Relatives offload the exhumed remains of Esther Biriya Masha who was a follower of the Christian cult named Good News International Church, who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death in Shakahola, from a private hearse as the authorities begin to hand over bodies to family members, at the Star Specialist hospital funeral home in Malindi, Kilifi county, Kenya March 26, 2024. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

MALINDI, Kenya (Reuters) - Bereaved relatives emerged weeping from a hospital mortuary in Kenya on Tuesday after recovering the remains of loved ones whose doomsday cult leader induced them to starve themselves, according to the authorities.

The bodies of more than 400 followers of the Good News International Church have been exhumed from the Shakahola forest in southeastern Kenya since April 2023 in one of the world's worst cult-related tragedies of recent decades.

Cult leader Paul Mackenzie handed himself over to police last April and is facing murder charges along with 29 others. All have pleaded not guilty. Mackenzie stands accused of telling his followers the end of the world was coming and they should kill themselves to be first in line to ascend to heaven.

Only 35 bodies have been conclusively identified so far, adding to the anguish of hundreds of families waiting to lay their loved ones to rest.

A small number of bodies were the first to be handed over to families on Tuesday at a hospital mortuary in the town of Malindi. Relatives waited in single file before being let inside. Several of them emerged in floods of tears.

"I feel exhausted by the whole process," said Sylvanus Opodo, who had travelled from western Kenya to recover the body of his brother.

Opodo said the family could not afford appropriate transport for the remains, making an already difficult situation worse.

"They asked us to bring a hearse but we have no means to transport the remains of our brother," he said as he waited in the shade of a tree outside the mortuary.

Some of the remains were wheeled out in body bags and loaded into the backs of vehicles. Reporters and TV camera operators were kept a distance away.

Government officials have said the process of handing over the bodies was taking a long time because of exhumation, post-mortem and identification procedures. DNA testing has been used to identify some badly damaged remains.

But Roseline Odede, chairperson of the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said the process should be accelerated.

"Going at this rate, we are going to be here for 10 years, trying to identify the 390 plus bodies," she told reporters.

"I think the government must intentionally commit resources towards this process so that we are able to give closure to families."

(Additional reporting by Dicksy Obiero; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Anait Miridzhanian and Estelle Shirbon)

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