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Desperate search for missing families in Kenya cult horror

Dozens of devotees were also found alive but emaciated in Shakahola forest where radical preacher Nthenge is accused of encouraging his flock to find God through starvation. ©AFP

Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) - Outside a morgue, Bethy Kahindi wailed for her missing sister, certain she was the victim of a Kenyan cult believed to have brainwashed dozens of followers into starving to death.

The last time they spoke, nearly a year ago, Kahindi's sister told her "she will meet Jesus, and that we will see each other in Heaven".

"I have no hope of finding my sister and her six kids alive," the 37-year-old told AFP, red-eyed and distraught as other families also waited anxiously for news of their loved ones in the town of Malindi on Kenya's coast.

Some 80 kilometres (50 miles) away, in a forest where the cult gathered, police dug beneath the red soil where dozens of bodies have already been exhumed in recent days, more than half of them children.

Seventeen more corpses were discovered in mass graves on Tuesday, bringing to 90 the tally of dead so far linked to the Good News International Church and its now-notorious pastor, Paul Mackenzie Nthenge.

Dozens of devotees were also found alive but emaciated in Shakahola forest where Nthenge, a taxi driver turned radical preacher, is accused of encouraging his flock to find God through starvation.

Some of those rescued refused to eat, determined to fast until the end. 

But many remain missing and the Kenya Red Cross has been contacted by hundreds of families desperate for any news of loved ones who they say belonged to the cult.

Losing hope

Kahindi is among them, passing around photographs of her older sister Mary and her six children -- aged five to 22 -- in the hope of answers.

In a photo taken before she joined the cult in 2020, Mary is smiling, enjoying a meal.

In a more recent picture, taken last year, she is wearing a long white veil and visibly gaunt.

Habel Farasi, whose sister hasn't been found, was told to visit the morgue in Malindi and has been keeping a grim vigil since Sunday.

She joined the cult in 2013, Farasi said, quickly adopting Nthenge's extreme teachings, including taking her three children out of school.

In 2020, she set off for Shakahola forest with her children.Farasi has not seen her since.

"I don't think she's alive," the 56-year-old said, clutching photographs of his sibling and nephews.

"I went to see the bodies exhumed, and I have been told to come here to identify the bodies.I won't leave until I do."

At the mention of Nthenge, the alleged cult leader who is expected to appear in court next month, his grief turns to anger.

"This is a killer, nothing more, nothing less.What kind of religion can make people fast till death?"

'A monster'

Kahindi said she was also "torn between sadness and anger".

"This man is a monster, he killed my sister and her kids," she said, expressing anger that her sister was "brainwashed" despite Nthenge being on the radar of law enforcement for years.

The pastor was arrested in 2017 after extolling his followers to remove their children from school, claiming education was not approved in the Bible.He was later released.

Issa Ali, 16, was taken to the cult's bush hideout in 2020 by his mother and claims he was beaten by Nthenge when he tried to leave.

"Mackenzie said it was the place where Jesus was supposed to appear before the end of the world," he said.

His father eventually rescued him but he hasn't seen his 54-year-old mother since February.

"She came to see us and said 'goodbye', as if it was the last time we would see her.She was already emaciated at that moment," he said.

"We tried to prevent her from going there again but she wanted to go back.I think she is dead now."

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