A Kenyan Red Cross member comforts a rescued supporter of the Good News International Church – Copyright South Korean Prime Minister’s Office/AFP Handout
Weeping relatives awaited news of loved ones linked to a suspected hunger cult in Kenya on Wednesday as police resumed their search for victims after unearthing dozens of bodies since last week.
The discovery of mass graves in the Shakahola forest near the coastal town of Malindi shocked Kenyans, and sect leader Paul Mackenzie Nthenge was accused of putting his followers to death by preaching that famine was the only way to God.
When the death toll reached 90 on Tuesday, police said investigators were halting the search for bodies because morgues were full and children accounted for more than half the victims.
But on Wednesday morning, the search teams resumed operations, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.
“The exhumation continues,” a police officer told AFP.
The gruesome saga, which has been dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”, has sparked calls for a crackdown on fringe religious groups in the largely Christian country.
At Malindi sub-county state hospital, whose morgue is already well over capacity with dozens of bodies, families were desperate to know if their loved ones had been found.
“The last time I saw my mother was in February, she was part of the cult,” Issa Ali, 16, told AFP.
“She was so weak the last time I saw her,” the soft-spoken teen added.
Hassan Musa, a Kenyan Red Cross official, told AFP that 311 people, “including 150 minors”, had been reported missing to their support staff in Malindi.
“We don’t know how many more graves, how many more bodies, we are likely to find out,” Home Minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters during a visit to the site on Tuesday, adding that the crimes were serious enough to warrant charges. of terrorism against Nthenge. .
Most of the dead were children, according to three sources close to the investigation, who highlighted the macabre nature of the sect’s alleged practices, which included urging parents to starve their children to death.
– Hungry kids –
Hussein Khalid, executive director of the human rights group Haki Africa who alerted the police to Nthenge’s activities, told AFP that the Good News International Church appeared to demand that children starve first, then women and finally men. .
He said 50 to 60 percent of the victims were children, whose bodies were found wrapped in cotton shrouds inside shallow wells.
Kenya Red Cross official Kawthar Muhamed told AFP on Wednesday that rescuers had “found two more people in the bush this morning.”
Kindiki said on Tuesday that 34 people had been found alive so far in the 800-acre (325-hectare) forested area around Shakahola.
Kenyan President William Ruto has vowed to crack down on rogue herdsmen like Nthenge “who want to use religion to promote an alien and unacceptable ideology.”
As the investigation unfolds, questions have been raised about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Nthenge attracting the attention of police 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 the Bible did not recognize education.
Nthenge was arrested again last month, according to local media, after two children starved to death in their parents’ custody.
He was released on 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($700) bail before turning himself in to police after the Shakahola raid.
Nthenge is due to appear in court on May 2.