A leader of a religious group in Kenya has been accused of killing people. The bodies of over 400 people were found buried in a forest in the eastern part of the country.
Survivors and families of those who were hurt say Paul Mackenzie told his followers to stop eating so they could “go see Jesus”.
He and 29 other people said they did not do the crime in a court in the town of Malindi by the ocean.
Mackenzie has been accused of doing scary and mean things to kids, but he says he didn’t do it.
The police and lawyers think that, besides not having enough food, some people may have been killed by choking, not being able to breathe, or being hit with a hard thing.
30 people are accused of killing 191 others.
“I’m still afraid of him,” one person who survived the incident told the BBC when asked what she would say to Mackenzie if she ever saw him.
“I never want to see him,” said the 29-year-old mom with four kids.
Neema, who is using a different name, used to go to the Good News International Church in Malindi. But the church was shut down in 2019.
In 2022, she went to Shakahola, a forest about 70km (43 miles) west of the town, because she heard that the church leader had moved there with other members of the church.
Shakahola has very few people living there and is being watched by the police all day and night. The police are investigating it as a crime and nobody can go in.
At first, the worshippers went there and then came back home. But starting in late 2022, the followers say they were not allowed to go.
Neema was having her fourth baby and was only two months along when she went to the forest for the last time. She said she couldn’t leave and the guards kept hurting and forcing women to have sex.
“The speaking stopped,” she said. “They said we’re finished learning and we’re just waiting to see Jesus. ”
At first, the people in the forest would get a little bit of tea and a piece of bread for breakfast.
That’s all for today.
But later, Neema said they were told that there would be no more food or water.
“We would go into the bushes and gather wild berries to eat when the guards stopped to have their meals,” she said.
They would also pick up water from the ground and drink using their hands.
When she couldn’t take it anymore, she made a plan to run away with two of her friends. Coming up with a plan was hard because we weren’t allowed to talk in groups. They had to be quiet.
They waited for the guards to take their usual break, then they closed the door to their hut, made a hole in the back wall, and ran away.
“We were not strong,” Neema said.
However, they kept going because they were desperate to get away.
Fortunately, when they reached the main road, they found a driver who gave them a ride to the hospital.
Many people, including lots of kids, were not as fortunate.
They were the first group to decide not to eat until they fell asleep, as told by the survivors.
Women were supposed to obey them.
Changawa Mangi is an old man from Shakahola village.
He said he met Mackenzie when he went to buy land there because he wanted to start farming.
“We said hello to him. ”
Over time, the people who lived there noticed that Mackenzie often had a lot of guests.
That’s when they discovered he was in charge of a church, but it didn’t bother them.
Their presence helped local businesses because the church’s followers shopped there.
But that suddenly stopped. Mackenzie’s friends no longer went to the village stores. Then the signs that something bad might happen soon started showing up.
Mr Mangi said that three young people came to his house asking for help.
They looked very thin. So, he gave them food to eat.
Mr Mangi said one of them had diarrhea for three days, and it looked like soil.
The leader told the government about the problem, but they were slow to respond.
The young men from the village made a plan to ride their motorbikes into the area. But they were greeted with anger, pushed away by the guards and had two motorcycles burned.
It became clear that they could only get inside with police help.
Francis Wanje, a 59-year-old teacher from Mombasa, went to check if his daughter and her family had moved to the forest because he heard rumors about it.
He told the police but they didn’t do anything right away.
What he saw in Shakahola surprised him a lot.
He couldn’t save some of his grandchildren in time, but he found his nine-year-old grandson.
“He said he saw [his brothers and sisters] die. He saw them not getting enough food from their mom and dad. It’s a story he will always remember. ” “He won’t forget. He thought he would be the next one, but luckily he was saved,” Mr. Wanje said to the BBC.
The mother of the boy, who is Mr. Wanje’s daughter, and her husband are still missing. He also saved another kid he found there.
Mr Mangi also assisted in the rescue work.
“Some people looked weak and like they might die soon,” he said.
Some people were stronger but didn’t want any help. They asked Mr Mangi: “Why are you bothering us when we want to go see Jesus. You will also die someday, won’t you. ”
When Stephen Mwiti, a 45-year-old dad with six kids, found out about the rescue, he thought he might learn about what happened to his children. His wife had taken them to the forest.
He showed a photo of the family to some of the people who were saved.
They confirmed his children’s names and told him the very sad news. “They told me that my kids are gone. They were not given enough food and died.
They told Mr Mwiti that the children – Jacob, Lillian and Angelina – had been buried with seven other people in a large grave.
Hellen and Samwel were saved, but they hadn’t eaten for four days and thought they might have died before they talked to their worried father.
One more baby born in Shakahola also passed away.
Neema, the lady who ran away, said that mothers would be told not to feed their babies milk so that they would also “go to Jesus”.
The cult said not to use modern medicine and told members not to vaccinate kids.
Mackenzie and his friends are in jail after he turned himself in to the police last April. The bodies of people were found in the forest.
They said they didn’t make anyone go without food. At one time, Mackenzie told the court that the police didn’t give him any food when he was in custody.
A BBC review of Mackenzie’s sermons on video does not have him telling people to fast, but he talks a lot about followers giving up important things, even their lives.
But out of all the 400 bodies in the morgue, only 39 have been identified using DNA testing and connected with their families.
Other family members are still suffering through a painful wait.
Mr Mwiti said that justice can’t bring back his family.