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Shakahola Massacre: Gravedigger's chilling account of exhuming bodies

Some of the bodies that were exhumed at Shakahola forest in Kilifi. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

Exhuming one body after another from the shallow graves in Malindi's Shakahola farm, he has mastered how to put aside his sentiments.

When he was called to help exhume the bodies from mass graves on April 15, Jack (not his real name) says he thought this was a one-day gig. "I could not turn down the job paying Sh1,000 a day," he said.

A month later, Jack says the job drains them physically, emotionally, and spiritually. "I was hit by the reality of the job's complexity when we exhumed six children from one grave at Bethlehem," he said.

Jack says the children faced each other, adding that in a second grave, there were seven bodies of older people with a girl placed on their feet. "It was like children were just thrown into the graves haphazardly," he said.

The situation called for them to conduct the exercise with meticulous care, given that vegetables and cowpeas planted had covered some graves.

"Those graves look like an orchard, with vegetables planted to cover the graves," said Jack.

Jack said most of the bodies exhumed were wrapped in bedsheets or a piece of cloth, adding that they were shocked to find two well-preserved bodies in one of the graves.

"It is like the two bodies were first in a mortuary," he said.

The graves were first identified and marked by forensic experts from the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and some locals before the exhumation started on April 14.

The gravediggers, led by forensic experts assigned to each of them, operate in groups. The gravediggers have already retrieved over 211 bodies from homesteads christened Nazareth and Bethlehem inside the thickets.

This is after ten bodies were retrieved yesterday.

Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha said men believed to be Makenzi's disciples were arrested.

"Today, we have arrested three suspects whom we believe are Makenzi's aides, raising the number of the arrests to 30," Onyancha said.

The horrid mass suicide in the erstwhile little-known village of Shakahola area in Kilifi County has thrust Kenya into the international limelight over the activities of the doomsday cult linked to Pastor Paul Makenzi.

Starve themselves

Mr Makenzi of the Good News International Church is in police custody pending investigations into the claims that he convinced members of his congregation to starve themselves to death to meet Jesus.

"Every time I find a child's body, I think of my own, and I feel like crying," said Jack, adding that some graves are hidden beneath vegetable gardens to create a facade of a well-manicured yard. "The bodies were marked differently from those buried in homesteads and were carried straight to the grave." He noted that he was doing a service for humanity, and he takes pride in it.

"One of the chilling experiences is exhuming the children. But I still have to go to work because someone has to exhume the bodies from the grave,'' he said as he nodded his head.

With a brave face, while exhuming the bodies, he faces a different picture when he returns home to his family. He says he locks himself inside his bedroom and bursts into tears. "When digging, the forensic team would know when the body is near and when to stop, making the job easier with the help of professionals,'' he said.

Jack says since he started the exhumation, he has been "praying more than usual" following the cult deaths, adding that he stopped going to church because he lost trust in men of 'cloth'.

"Though you never get used to death, there is a part that hurts, even when you do not know the deceased. Death is emotional," he narrated. For Jack, there is a need for psycho-social support to help him and his team cope with the trauma caused by exhuming dozens of bodies.

The homicide team led by the department's Director Martin Nyaguto has been digging the mass graves in the 800-acre expansive Shakahola farm bordering the forest, hoping to exhume all the victims and identify them to allow their families to bury them with dignity.

With the exercise that resumed yesterday, pathologists and forensic experts are working tirelessly to return remains to loved ones by finding out their identities. Earlier on, chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor said the forensic team would take another break for postmortem once the second phase of exhumation reaches 100.

"We are done with the postmortem, and we are going back for the second face of exhumation, and if the number increases by 100, we will take another break for postmortem,'' said Oduor.

Hundreds of people have been going to the Malindi sub-county hospital morgue for DNA tests while others are still registering their missing loved ones.

In a case that erupted last month, Makenzi is accused of urging his followers to meet Jesus through starvation. According to Hamprey Ngonyo, his ex-follower, Makenzi painted himself as a modern-day Moses who would save his people by leading them to the promised land of Shakahola, where they would "meet Jesus" through starvation.

Mr Ngonyo says the key to understanding the tragedy in Shakahola village lies in the oratory skills Makenzi had. "He was very charismatic, with the cadence and fervour of a Baptist preacher, the charm and folksiness of a country storyteller, " Ngonyo explained.

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