Detectives discover '214 torture chambers' in Shakahola massacre probe

Shakahola massacre suspect Paul Makenzi at Shanzu Law Courts on June 2, 2023. [Marion Kithi, Standard]

Detectives investigating the Shakahola massacre in Malindi, Kilifi County, have discovered 214 torture chambers and fasting bays where people were allegedly detained, tortured, or killed.

The discovery of the sites, inside the 800-acre Shakahola forest, is part of the ongoing exercise to document crime scenes even as detectives seek to build evidence to help in the prosecution of the cult leaders.

Bodies of over 450 people the government claims were followers of pastor Paul Makenzi have been retrieved from the forest. The victims reportedly died after they were forced to fast, while some are said to have been killed.

Makenzi, the suspected head of the quasi-religious cult Good News International Church, and his suspected co-conspirators were arrested in April this year. They have denied the claims but have been in police custody pending the completion of the investigations.

A senior detective involved in the probe told The Standard yesterday that the devotees of the cult were forced to relocate from their homes and moved into the forest to fast in designated areas now christened torture chambers.

“It is clear that they were forced to fast. They were ordered not to break the fast. They were also told to avoid detection by the outsiders even as the devotees were taken to designated bays,” he said. 

Some of the 64 survivors of the Shakahola massacre when they appeared before Shanzu Law Courts on August 4, 2023. [Robert Menza, Standard]

At the suspected torture chambers, police said they recovered pieces of cloth and ropes alongside several other unidentified paraphernalia they only described as “horrendous items”.

According to the detectives, some cult leaders were assigned security duties to guard the torture chambers and prevent the devotees from escaping. The guards were assigned various roles including, patrollers, gravediggers, transporters of dead bodies, and security for fasting followers among others.

“The head of each group was assigned a mobile phone and would report in case of any eventuality,” said the detectives.

Preliminary investigations showed that the guards would meet each morning, at a residence of one of them in 'Judea village', and take a heavy meal before proceeding to their respective assignments.

During the search and rescue mission, some of the victims who had been locked inside some houses were found naked with their legs tied together using headscarves. This, as detectives later learned, was to prevent them from escaping or seeking help.

David Katana, a harder, confirmed to have come across men, whom he believed were Makenzi's followers, who were guarding some women inside the forest.

"We were herding inside the Shakahola forest when we suddenly heard people calling for help. We were moving in that direction to render our help when we saw four emaciated women under guard,” he said.

He added: “The women were lying on a mat under a tree. As we moved closer hoping to assist the women, we spotted a group of men armed with machetes and other crude weapons. They were watching over the women. The men charged towards us and we had to run for our lives. We reported the matter to the police the following day," said Katana.

Earlier on, autopsies had revealed some of the victims had been tortured and others strangled. The detectives are documenting the crime scenes by connecting the torture chambers and the graves for easy identification of the victims.

The process, which started last week, is being done with the help of government surveyors who have deployed GPRS tools for future reference.

Since exhumations began on April 21, 429 bodies have been exhumed from shallow mass graves in the forest.

Homicide detectives take away bodies they had exhumed in Shakahola forest on May 13, 2023. [Marion Kithi, Standard]

During the investigation, police found a meal menu inside Makenzi’s house. Makenzi’s family menu was well varied, which starkly contrasted the deprivation he advocated for his followers. It showed that he would have a hearty breakfast and skip supper only twice a week.

Outside his house, detectives found leftovers of chicken and bones of goats, indicating he enjoyed sumptuous meals as his alleged followers fasted.

Makenzi is said to have instructed his followers not to eat food or drink water. He allegedly told them not to take a shower or brush their teeth as they would do so in heaven, according to investigators.

Makenzi and his 29 co-accused are set to appear in court on October 12 as the state seeks to detain him for six more months to allow them to complete investigations.

Meanwhile, families of the victims are still waiting to bury their loved ones as the DNA process takes much longer than anticipated because of the level of decomposition.

Coast Regional Coordinator Rhoda Onyancha said the number of those rescued stands at 95. At least 37 people have been arrested.

“At least 613 people have been reported to be missing by their families in relation to the Shakahola massacre," she said.

Onyancha further said over 256 relatives of the cult victims have undergone DNA testing to help identify their loved ones.