A relative of a cult member and medical personnel told Reuters on Wednesday that the leader of a cult in Kenya warned his followers that the world will end on April 15 and gave them instructions to starve themselves in order to be the first to enter heaven.
There are known fatalities among the 89 members of the Good News International Church, which had its headquarters in the Shakahola forest in eastern Kenya. Since Friday, authorities have pulled 81 remains from shallow graves; eight cult members were discovered alive but eventually perished.
The deaths amount to one of the worst cult-related tragedies in recent history and the toll is expected to rise further, with the Kenyan Red Cross saying more than 300 people have been reported as missing.
Cult leader Paul Mackenzie has been in police custody since April 14, held alongside 14 other cult members. Kenyan media have reported that he is refusing food and water.
“He told them to starve themselves ahead of the world’s end on April 15, saying he would be that last one and that he would lock the doors,” said Stephen Mwiti, whose wife and six children joined the cult and are feared dead.
Mwiti said he had heard this from a former cult member who had been expelled for drinking water during the mass fast.
Hospital staff in the coastal town of Malindi, where corpses and survivors are being taken, said they had heard the same account from survivors.
“He (Mackenzie) had an elaborate plan of killing children, youths and then adults, telling them he would be the last one to starve himself to death,” said one of the hospital staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mwiti said he had raised the alarm with police, but felt that he had been ignored. A spokeswoman for the police said she would respond to a request for comment later.
Reuters’ efforts to reach Mackenzie’s lawyer for comment on the accusations against him have been unsuccessful.
Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome told media on Monday that Mackenzie had been arrested and arraigned in court on March 23, then released on bail for a surety of 10,000 shillings ($75).
He accelerated his starvation plan after he was freed, according to the accounts heard by Reuters.
At the morgue at Malindi hospital, dozens of people were seeking news of relatives they feared were among the dead.
“My heart is aching so much,” said Mwachai Jombo, 48, a resident of Malindi as he searched for his missing wife, son and two daughters who had joined the cult three years ago.
The Red Cross has donated a refrigerated container on a truck to help preserve some of the corpses as the morgue is now too full.
Two emaciated women were found alive early on Wednesday and were being evacuated to Malindi’s hospital, according to Red Cross staff in Malindi. That brought the total number of known survivors to 36.
Reuters reporters were granted access to a ward where four women survivors were being treated. All four were weak and emaciated, and they avoided eye contact with other people. They all had very short hair – in line with the cult’s rules for women, according to relatives.
One of them, Shamim Salim, 26, was being spoon-fed soup by a well-wisher. She said she had bought three acres of land in the Shakahola forest, where she lived with her husband and three children. They were still in the forest, she said. She declined to speak about the church’s teachings or her experiences.