One year on, Shakahola victims' families struggle with closure

Families of Shakahola massacre victims at the Malindi sub county morgue where they camped for the collection of bodies of their loved ones. [Marion Kithi,Standard]

A year after school teacher Francis Wanje lost eight family members to a Kenyan doomsday cult, he is still reckoning with the horror and haunted by unanswered questions.

His daughter was one of 429 people whose bodies were exhumed last year from shallow graves in a sun-scorched forest near the Indian Ocean town of Malindi.

"It has been a very tough journey. A very tough one," an incredulous Wanje told AFP after he received the remains of four relatives last month, including his daughter and grandson. "We are still hoping that perhaps in the near future, we are going to get the other four," Wanje, a father of five, said.

The victims were lured by former taxi driver turned evangelical pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie into the Shakahola forest which he promoted as a refuge from the impending end of the world.

Mackenzie, a preacher who had run afoul of the law on numerous occasions, is accused of inducing them to starve to death to ascend to heaven.

While many people died of starvation, government pathologists have said that others, including children, died of asphyxiation and strangulation.

The case first came to public attention a year ago this week after Wanje set out on a private rescue mission following a tip-off from a former member of Mackenzie's Good News International Church.

After a couple of failed attempts to gain entry into the vast forest, he found his eldest grandson, looking gaunt and near death. Two other grandchildren had been suffocated by their parents, he said.

"These senseless murders could have been avoided if everyone (had) moved with urgency."

'Baseless accusations'

Reports by the Kenyan senate and a state-funded human rights watchdog have said the authorities could have prevented the deaths.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) said in a report released last month that the police ignored multiple warnings about the cult, including from a former member who posted desperate cries for help on Facebook in November 2022.

"Instead of investigating the veracity of the issues raised, the lady was intimidated after being accused of making baseless accusations," KNCHR said, adding that the police instead accepted a complaint by Mackenzie about the posts.

"The negligence and failure of the security and administration structures left Mackenzie followers at the full control and mercy of Mackenzie and his militia."

Hundreds of anguished people have descended on Malindi since Mackenzie's arrest, desperate to know the fate of their loved ones.

Many are still waiting.

Only 34 of the 429 bodies have been identified after DNA profiling was delayed by a lack of equipment.

Of those, 25 have been handed over to families since last month, a homicide officer close to the case told AFP. A fifth phase of exhumation is due to start soon.

"We are running out of time and we are still in the dark," said 31-year-old Mapenzi Kombe, whose sister disappeared after joining the church.

"Our mother has cried every day and her tears are not drying up," she told AFP, pointing to an elderly woman who was pensively staring into space.

'People are anxious'

Other families also feel abandoned.

"We are very devastated following the sluggish pace of the DNA process," Roseline Asena said, calling it "shameful".

Her brother and sister-in-law are in detention for working with Mackenzie to starve scores of followers, including their five children -- the youngest only a year old.

The couple "have refused to say where the children are," Asena told AFP, adding that she was losing hope of "finding them alive".

Furthermore, she said government officials had not communicated with her family since May last year after promising that the identification process would take no more than two months.

"No visitation, no emotional support like counselling sessions, in short the government has completely abandoned us to our plight."

Last month, when Wanje became the first person allowed to retrieve bodies for burial, only a handful of Red Cross volunteers were present to console the wailing relatives.

The government has not offered any psycho-social support either to the families or to the officers involved in the grisly case, according to KNCHR chairwoman Roseline Odede.

"People are anxious and need closure on the matter," she said.

Mackenzie and dozens of other suspects have pleaded not guilty to murder, manslaughter and terrorism. They have also been charged with child torture and cruelty.

For victims' families, the delays have compounded their "agony (and) anguish," said Asena.

"We do not know what to expect anymore."

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