In Kenya, in the footsteps of Pastor Mackenzie and his dozens of followers found dead

What morbid secrets do Shakahola Forest still hold? On the Kenyan coast, the contrast is striking between these woods where hastily dug graves are piled up and the very popular neighboring seaside resort of Malindi, some forty kilometers away

In Kenya, in the footsteps of Pastor Mackenzie and his dozens of followers found dead

What morbid secrets do Shakahola Forest still hold? On the Kenyan coast, the contrast is striking between these woods where hastily dug graves are piled up and the very popular neighboring seaside resort of Malindi, some forty kilometers away. In one, the country's bourgeoisie enjoys the white sands of the Indian Ocean; in the other, the members of Pastor Paul Mackenzie's sect died one after another, starving, buried under ocher earth, awaiting the Last Judgment.

The smell indicates a slow death. That of bodies rotting in the sun, in a coastal forest where the thermometer reads more than 30°C. The air is heavy there. "I have lost my sense of smell since the relief operations," says Victor Kaudo, head of the Malindi Social Justice Center. He is one of the first to have gone to this remote forest to try to save the feverish bodies which were slowly being carried away by hunger and heat. Those of the followers of the International Church of the Good News, of Pastor Mackenzie, a self-proclaimed prophet who ordered them to begin an extreme fast to "meet Jesus". According to the guru, the end of the world must occur in June.

The authorities deployed a military force to Shakahola to carry out the searches. Since the end of April, they have exhumed 110 bodies and rescued around 50 people. Hundreds more are said to be between life and death. The Kenya Red Cross estimates that 540 people are still wandering in the bush as the trial of their leader, Paul Mackenzie, begins in Mombasa, the country's second city. Rescue operations continue, without anyone else being able to approach the mysterious forest, helping to fuel the craziest rumors about one of the most tragic news stories in Kenyan history.

Living for four years in these woods

Who could have imagined such carnage being committed behind closed doors, out of sight, in a large patch of land almost deserted by all? It was from one of the few shepherds grazing their flocks that the first alert came in March. The breeder then reports having seen skeletal figures letting themselves die, their hands bound by ropes. Not far away, mounds of sand signal strange burials.

Paul Mackenzie and his followers had been quietly inhabiting the woods for four years. In 2019, following trouble with the law, the fake pastor had closed and sold his church in Malindi and publicly declared his conversion to agriculture. That year, he bought the 800 hectares of Shakahola, far from civilization, to secretly continue his projects there. Hundreds of devotees follow him on his deadly adventure.

"There's no field, crop, orchard, or anything," says a grocer in the village of Shakahola, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals: "Instead, Mackenzie built six rustic villages and told who knows what, kinds of prophecies. The forest is then nicknamed the "holy ground" by the followers. The newly created hamlets are named after biblical places: Nazareth, Sidon, Judea or even Bethlehem.

About 70 bodyguards

A former taxi driver, Paul Mackenzie became an evangelical pastor two decades ago. At first, his vitriolic sermons push his followers to withdraw their children from school, to burn their identity papers and to no longer seek treatment in hospitals. "He then asked his followers to sell all their properties and join him as the Last Day approached," says Reuben Wuange, whose brother Maishak, 36, and two nieces, ages 3 and 6, followed the pastor and are still missing. "It was a way to trap them, to make them dependent," says Reuben, who comes to donate his DNA to eventually find one of his relatives among the 110 bodies that fill the Malindi morgue.

A sign that he did not imagine himself to be a simple farmer, Mackenzie surrounded himself with around 70 bodyguards, who traveled and protected the woods on motorbikes, armed with bows and machetes. The organization is run-in. On several occasions, his security burned the motorcycles of local residents who had approached a little too close to the sect.

In January, events accelerated. "All of a sudden, the people of the forest no longer came to shop in my store", is surprised the grocer, who found their behavior "creepy", in particular because "they always moved in groups, never never called each other their first name, and never answered questions about the forest". The reason for this change in attitude is macabre. In January, Paul Mackenzie confided to his followers that he had been taken by a vision. In June the apocalypse will strike, he prophesies. A total fast must begin. Children will die first, women will follow. As for the false prophet and his family, they must be the last to die. In reality, Mackenzie will never fast. Present in the accused box in Mombasa on Tuesday, May 2, the prisoner, laughing, appears plump. He now complains of not being fed in police custody.

Crazy or clever manipulator, greedy for money

With Shakahola completely cordoned off by the military and hundreds more graves yet to be discovered, one question remains: what was really driving the pastor? Is he crazy or is he a clever, money-hungry manipulator? Questions reinforced by the results of autopsies, according to which several of the bodies show traces of "asphyxiation", "strangulation" and "violent blows to the head". Have worshipers been murdered alongside starving believers?

"Without being a millionaire, he's a man with money, he's a self-interested man," says Titus Mweri, a former Good News International Church executive, who walked out of the congregation in 2020 after witnessing worshipers burning their IDs and college degrees at the pastor's request. "He's a fake pastor obviously, he announced that the rains were coming and they never came, it was embarrassing," laughs the former assistant.

It also remains to be understood how teachers, engineers and flight attendants from all over Kenya were able to sacrifice everything to starve themselves in Shakahola. "It's a shock, I don't know how he could have been fooled, he was a normal man, a husband, a father, a good Christian", assures Reuben Wuange, who has lost track of his brother Maishak three years ago. The latter, a water engineer, former valedictorian of the University of Eldoret, suddenly sold all his possessions before returning to the forest with his two daughters.

Some denounce an opacity around the case

Among the victims, there is also a Qatar Airways flight attendant, Beatrice Anjete. The young woman left the Qatari company overnight to fill the ranks of the sect, after having "received the certainty of meeting Jesus", she wrote to those close to her. "He took advantage of the panic of some believers at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic to convince them that the end of the world was near and that they should come and live in the desert depending only on the divine will", analyzes former member Titus Mweri.

The investigation is just beginning, but many journalists and members of civil society are surprised at the opacity surrounding the Shakahola affair. The morgue, the hospital and the forest are inaccessible. The information is given in dribs and drabs. Exhumations are suspended.

"The security forces give the impression of hiding the extent of the tragedy", slips a humanitarian on the spot, according to whom a hundred additional graves have already been found but not declared by the authorities. “Where were the police forces when the massacre started, how could they let a killing of such magnitude take place? thunders opposition leader Raila Odinga, traveling to the edge of the forest on Friday, May 5. “This case is a disgrace to Kenya and a disgrace to the government! »