In the dense expanse of Shakahola forest in Kilifi county, Kenya, rescue teams are wading through a cloud of confusion while trying to reunite survivors with their families. A puzzling twist in the ongoing tragedy has emerged: the followers of Paul Mackenzie, the cult leader, had adopted new identities, significantly complicating the identification process.
As the count of missing individuals suspected to have joined Mackenzie’s cult tops 610, authorities are grappling with the grim reality that these followers endorsed a doctrine advocating self-starvation in pursuit of divine communion.
Tuesday brought the chilling discovery that the count of bodies unearthed from the 800-acre Shakahola Forest had crossed the 200 mark. Despite the arrest of 26 suspects linked to the cult, the authorities are struggling to make headway in their search due to the deliberate obfuscation of identities.
The rescue teams have announced a two-day hiatus to streamline their logistical efforts, but have assured that the search will continue unabated.
Heartrending stories have begun to surface as families recognize their missing kin from media broadcasts. Lilian Kabarika, a shocked mother, identified her son on the evening news. He had been escorted out of Malindi police station by Mackenzie, under a new name.
A subsequent visit to the hospital in search of her grandchildren turned out to be futile. When she finally confronted her son at the police station, he was introduced as “Collins” – a name alien to her. The distraught mother recollected her son’s farewell as he left to join his relocated family in Mombasa.
In another instance, Fatuma Salim found her sister Shamim after a painstaking two-week search. But her elation was cut short when she learned that her sister was now known as Damaris Vidzo.
The Kenya Red Cross Society’s tracing desk is fraught with similar tales of confusion as families attempt to locate their loved ones by their former names, which they had since abandoned to adopt new identities under Mackenzie’s influence.
Coast Region Red Cross chief, Hassan Musa, confessed that the absence of identity documents among the rescued survivors has rendered the process of reunification slow and arduous.
Among the hopefuls is Japhet Dzombo, who had lost track of his wife and children in 2020. When the mystery of Shakahola deaths began to unfold, he connected the dots and reported his family missing. His wife was a devout follower of Mackenzie’s Good News International Church.
Despite initial despair, a phone call from the search and rescue officers revived his hopes. His son had been found and had provided vital information about the rest of the family. Without his wife’s bible, which had Dzombo’s phone number, identification would have been nearly impossible.
The Dzombo family, along with others, is urging the government to intensify the search efforts. They argue that the same resources expended for rescuing lost tourists should be employed to save the cult’s potential survivors still trapped in the Shakahola forest.
Beka Dzombo, Japhet’s brother, insists that the government should shift focus from exhumation to active search and rescue efforts, suggesting that many lives may yet be saved.