Shakahola death toll up to 303 after 19 bodies exhumed

Some of the 65 victims rescued from Shakahola Forest, at the Shanzu Law Courts where they were charged with attempted suicide after they refused to eat. [Joackim Bwana, Standard]

The death count from the Shakahola massacre has risen to 303 after 19 more bodies were found in shallow graves on Tuesday.

The remains of six adults and 13 children were unearthed from seven graves in the Shakahola Forest. This is the highest number of bodies recovered in a single day since the third round of excavations began last week.

Four children were found in one grave near the home of Good News International church leader Paul Makenzi, located in the forest in Malindi, Kilifi County.

The victims are believed to be followers of Makenzi, who is currently in police custody. He is accused of instructing his congregation to starve themselves to death in order to meet Jesus.

During the third round of excavations, about 20 new graves have been discovered as investigators try to uncover the full scope of the tragedy.

According to a detective who asked not to be named, most of the victims found during this round are children. “Since we began phase three exhumation last week, we have been exhuming more children than adults. Their level of decomposition means that they died at different times.”

Earlier, Chief Government Pathologist Dr Johansen Oduor said that most of the children had been strangled to death.

Speaking yesterday at the Shakahola command center, Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha said that over 600 people are still unaccounted for.

“At least 613 people are reported to be missing. We have put every effort to find those who are still alive,” said Ms Onyancha. The administrator said that 35 arrests have been made in connection with the cult associated with Makenzi. The suspects are being held at various police stations within Kilifi.

So far, police have saved 95 survivors during search and rescue operations on Makenzi’s vast property. Some survivors were too weak to walk when found, and 19 have been reunited with their families.

Across the country, police have been interrogating other religious leaders suspected of propagating harmful and human rights-violating teachings.

Speaking in Shakahola last week, Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki said the operation will take longer than initially anticipated.