As rescue efforts continue at Shakahola forest in Kilifi county, confusion reigns at the Kenya Red Cross tracing desk as families fail to identify their rescued kin due to what authorities suspect was a deliberate plan by the cult to change the names of their adherents.
It has now emerged that a majority of those who followed Paul Mackenzie had changed their names, making it difficult to trace them.
A total of 610 people have been reported missing, and suspected to have been part of the cult that believed in the doctrine of starving themselves to death so as “to meet God”.
The number of bodies retrieved from the 800-acre Shakahola Forest yesterday crossed the 200-mark after 22 more bodies were exhumed. Authorities are holding 26 suspects, one of whom was arrested yesterday.
Yesterday, the teams said they will take a two-day break to “reorganise logistical support” but said the search and rescue continues.
Half of the families that have been reunited with their loved ones now claim videos and photos displayed in the news is what led to the reunion.
One of them, Ms Lilian Kabarika who said the news on the night of May 2, left her in shock and disbelief when a video of her son walking out of Malindi police station, accompanied by Pastor Mackenzie and escorted by police, was broadcast on television.
Thereafter, Ms Kabarika and her immediate family made a painful trip to Malindi.
“We went to the hospital in search of my grandchildren, but it was fruitless,” she says.
At the Malindi police station, she asked to see her son, Baron Chaenza, but when the police brought him out, they identified him as Collins.
“He had even changed his name. Who is Collins? He is called Baron,” says the distressed mother as she recalls how her son bid her goodbye, saying he was travelling to Mombasa where his wife and children had already moved.
Ms Fatuma Salim, who had reported her sister Shamim missing, identified her after a two weeks’ search. Her joy was, however, short-lived.
“I had registered her as Shamim Salim, but there was no such name among those rescued. Weeks later, I showed the officers my sister’s photo. She had been rescued but gave her name as Damaris Vidzo,” she said.
Meanwhile, confusion marred the Kenya Red Cross Society tracing desk as families seek to find their loved ones by their old names, which they had already ditched in favour of new identities under Mr Mackenzie.
Coast Region Red Cross chief Hassan Musa admitted that identifying and reuniting the victims with their families is difficult and slow considering that most of the victims rescued from the forest have no identity documents.
Japhet Dzombo had given up looking for his wife and three children who moved to Shakahola in 2020, but a phone call last Tuesday from the search and rescue officers on the ground changed everything.
"I was in Nairobi on a business trip that year and when I came back home to Malindi, my wife and the children were not at home. I was informed they had moved out," said Mr Dzombo.
For three years, he had no idea where his family was. But, the fact that his wife was a firm believer in the Good News International Church of Mackenzie raised an eyebrow when Shakahola deaths started to unravel.
"I went and reported the matter to Malindi Police Station but I was advised to move to Langobaya area. I did not have enough fare to visit the area, I proceeded to the Red Cross tracing desk and reported them as missing," said Mr Dzombo.
He gave up and turned to prayers, hoping to find his family either alive or dead.
"It is hard for most of the families since we are depending on the missing people report desk. Others have changed their names, making it harder to trace them," said Mr Dzombo.
Following the rescue of his 15-year-old son last Tuesday, Mr Dzombo now believes that his family might be alive, somewhere inside the forest.
"When my son was rescued, he said the other siblings and their mother had left hurriedly. He urged the officers to take my wife’s bible, which had my phone number written on it, that is how they managed to identify my family," explained Mr Dzombo.
Were it not for the phone number, he would have a hard time tracing his son.
The family is urging the government to deploy aircraft operations noting, a number of people are still alive inside the Shakahola forest.
"It is sad that the State can spend resources in search of a tourist who was lost in Chakama Ranch back then, but they dilly-dally when it comes to us, its citizens. If they channeled the same effort, in a weeks’ time, many people would have been rescued," said Mr Dzombo.
His brother, Beka Dzombo suggests the government puts a hold onto the exhumation exercise and shift its focus to search and rescue.