Shakahola: Kin of victims reluctant to collect bodies, seek therapy to reach closure

Exhumed bodies at the Shakahola fasting cult crime scene. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

A team of experts is counselling families reluctant to collect bodies of Shakahola victims from the Malindi mortuary in Kilifi county.

The social workers and therapists from the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), the Directorate of Homicide, and Kilifi County hope to convince the families to pick the bodies of their kin for burial. 

Kilifi County KRCS coordinator Kawthar Mohammed said the process would ensure that all the Shakahola massacre victims are buried with dignity.

"We are conducting counselling sessions at the household level to make sure that the bodies are accepted, buried with dignity and put closure to this matter at the family level," she said.

Ms Mohamed explained that the counselling sessions are also meant to address mental illness among the families of the victims, yet to come to terms with to cause of the death of their loved ones.

"In addition, we do pre-counselling sessions for people who come to inquire about their missing loved ones at the mortuary, and upon a DNA match, we also do post-counselling sessions. For those who refuse to pick up the remains of their kin, we do home visits to talk to them to remove the bodies," she said.

On March 26, authorities began releasing the bodies of victims to distraught relatives, almost a year since the discovery of mass graves in Shakahola forest, which shocked the world.

Many families are undergoing counselling to address the stigma associated with the Shakahola massacre linked to the Good News International Church, led by Pastor Paul Makenzi.

Makenzi and other co-accused are in custody battling several charges associated with the massacre where more than 400 people, including children, died.

Pricillar Charles, who lost four kin to the cult, said her family was still undecided whether to bury her granddaughter, the only one identified among the four.

This is after the deceased's father who is in custody, instructed the family not to bury his seven-month-old daughter until he is released.

"We are trying to come to terms with the enormity of the tragedy that lies at our doorstep. Our family has been completely devastated by the loss of four family members. I do not know how to put into words how we are feeling," she said.

''After the counselling sessions, however, we have decided that we will lay her to rest on Thursday next week," she added.

Jesca Konde, a resident of Madamani, said they lost eight family members and they are yet to conduct the burial of one who was identified due to the stigma from society.

"In the aftermath of everything, our world was turned upside down, and we were not able to function properly. We didn't know who to turn to. I wondered why are we being treated differently, yet we need compassion and support for situations that come totally out of the blues," said Konde.

By Wednesday, May 15, 28 bodies had been collected by families for burial out of the 34 identified through DNA.

Authorities are still taking DNA samples from families who lost their loved ones. A total of 429 bodies were retrieved from the mass graves in Shakahola forest last year before the state halted the exhumation.

Witnesses and prosecutors said that from 2019, Makenzi, a former taxi driver in Malindi, lured hundreds of followers to Shakahola forest to prepare for the end of the world through fasting.

Government officials and survivors revealed that he convinced followers to fast to death to reach salvation, starting with the children.

Autopsies show that most victims died of starvation while others were bludgeoned to death.

The government is planning to embark on another round of exhumation after several mass graves were found inside the Shakahola forest.

Bodies that will not be identified through DNA tests will have to be interred in the Shakahola forest.

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