Unease as kin denied access to Shakahola ‘cult’ rescuees 

Japhet Dzombo during an interview, he managed to be reunited with his 15-year-old son. 

Japhet Dzombo during an interview, he managed to be reunited with his 15-year-old son. 

Photo credit: Alex Kalama | Nation Media Group

The government has been accused of denying friends and relatives access to persons rescued from the Shakahola forest.

Some of the families affected by the deaths of more than 210 people and the disappearance of at least 610 people have expressed concerns about the whereabouts and safety of their loved ones. 

A rescue operation has been running alongside the exhumation of bodies in the forest in Kilifi County, where followers of a cult allegedly led by Pastor Paul Mackenzie are believed to have starved themselves, ostensibly to meet Jesus.

The search-and-rescue operation was carried out jointly by a multi-agency team of security officers and Kenya Red Cross officials.

Speed was of the essence to ensure those fasting in the vast forest were found alive. 

But for the 14 families who have been told their loved ones are alive, it has been a mixture of joy and anger as they agonise over their whereabouts.

For a week, Ms Fatuma Salim looked after her sister, who was unable to do much by herself. 

The woman is among those who were rescued from the forest last week.

"She was slowly recovering and I was happy that we could go home and take care of her. But I was shocked when I visited the hospital and was told that she was no longer there," said Ms Salim.

“I was told that I would be called as soon as everything was settled. I am still waiting for that call,” Ms Salim told the Nation yesterday.

She explained that the family was close-knit until the death of her parents.

“We were brought up as Muslims. When my sister found her better half, she brought him home and they got married. I had no idea that she would start attending a church where she would end up being radicalised,” said Ms Salim.

Bodies exhumed from Shakahola Forest are loaded into a  police van on May 16, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

Mr Japhet Dzombo, whose 15-year-old son was rescued last Tuesday, complained that despite positively identifying his son, he was not allowed to take him home.

Rescue centre

“The officers told me that my son had to be taken to a rescue centre first for counselling and they did not tell me where that was,” said Mr Dzombo.

“When my son was rescued, he urged the officers to take my wife's Bible, which had my phone number written on it, so they could identify my family," Mr Dzombo explained.

“Once a person is rescued, they are taken to a hospital for treatment and psychosocial support and then transferred to rescue centres for counselling. We cannot say when they will be released as their profiling is ongoing and investigations are also continuing,” said Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha.

“We will only reunite them when they are ready because you cannot force survivors to be with their families. It's a process and as long as they are supported, they will meet them when they are ready."

Kenya Red Cross Coast Manager Hassan Musa said once the search team on the ground rescued someone, they would hand him or her over to them.

The rescued persons would then be taken to Malindi Sub-County Hospital, from where the matter would be taken over by security officials.

A source privy to the investigations confided that "those who managed to take their loved ones home after recovery have since been followed up and such persons were taken back to the rescue centres".

Mr Musa added that the identification and reunification process was slow due to several factors, including the fact that some of the victims had changed their names.

He said the majority of those who had been rescued did not have identification documents with them, which complicated the process.

Yesterday, Ms Onyancha said 10 bodies had been exhumed, bringing the total number of cult deaths to 211.

Three adult males in critical condition were also rescued from the forest and taken to Malindi Sub-County Hospital for treatment.

The number of people reported as missing had hit 610.

Four more suspects were arrested yesterday and put in police custody.

Exhumations continue today.