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Cult leader charged with murder in Kenya

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

First, a warning that the next story discusses mass suicide and might not be suitable for all listeners. In Kenya, police made a gruesome discovery last year. They found the bodies of more than 400 people, including nearly 200 children. Most of the bodies were buried in shallow graves in a remote forest, but some were found lying in the bushes. The victims were members of a doomsday cult whose leader urged followers to starve themselves to death in order to go see Jesus.

The cult leader, Paul Mackenzie, along with 29 associates, has been charged with murder, torture and terrorism. Their trials are expected to begin shortly. Kenyan journalist Carey Baraka is following the story and wrote about it for The Economist's 1843 magazine. Welcome to the program.

CAREY BARAKA: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So can you tell us about this cult and why its followers went into that forest?

BARAKA: So the story of the cult starts in 2003 when a preacher called Paul Mackenzie started a church in Malindi, which is a tourist town in Kenya near the Indian Ocean. And over the years, he said a bunch of controversial things. But matters came to a head in 2019 when he told the membership of his church - which numbered at least 1,000 people - that Jesus was coming back. But before that can happen, they have to die to prepare for his return. And the way to die is by starving to death.

So he and his followers went into this forest, and like every forest in Kenya, it's a forest that has lions and elephants and hippos and all sorts of big and dangerous animals. And in March 2023, stories emerged that all these people were dying in the forest, and they were dying in innocence because they'd been told that the way to go to heaven is by fasting and starving to death.

RASCOE: How was this all finally discovered?

BARAKA: So the first hint of things were happening - 'cause there's a group of herdsmen who usually take their animals into the forest to get food. And these people went to the forest and found a group of women lying down on the ground. And they didn't know what was happening. But then they were chased by a group of men arming machetes who told them to mind their own business. And then maybe a week later, the herdsmen found a group of boys between the age of 8 to 14. And these boys were clearly emaciated, very thin, very weak. And the boys said that they were running away because they had been forced to starve to death in the forest, and they did not want to starve.

RASCOE: And you've reported that while many people did starve themselves to death, police also alleged that some victims were either suffocated or beaten to death. Can you give us an idea of what went on in the final days?

BARAKA: The postmortem reports revealed that people had strangulation and suffocation marks. And the charge that the Kenya police is laying against Mackenzie is that at certain points, some members of his church changed their mind about the whole starving to death thing. But they were not allowed to change their minds. And so the moment they changed their minds, there was a militia in the forest whose job was to enforce these people dying.

RASCOE: And I understand that you've spoken to some of the followers who survived this. What do they tell you?

BARAKA: Yeah, I've spoken to some of the followers who survived. But the most important was this woman who - she lived in the forest from 2019 to last year. And she told me, essentially, that she believed in the messaging, but what changed her mind was being in her house and seeing her children crying because they're really hungry. And her realizing that, you know what? I'm not ready to, like, have my children die in this way. So she ran away from the forest.

RASCOE: The trial of Paul Mackenzie is expected to begin shortly. This is beyond tragic to have hundreds of people die in such a cruel way. Are there any larger lessons that people are taking from this horrible tragedy?

BARAKA: I think the lesson for most people with this tragedy and similar tragedies is just that you never know, OK, this is a good church, or this is going to be Jim Jones, you know? I think that's the fear people have. You never quite know what church or what religious outfit is going to be the one that ends with all these killings. Whatever religion you believe in, It's really hard for you to extract yourself at that moment of saying, OK, now this is the line.

Because if you've believed in religion for 30 years or 40 years, it would be very hard to realize that, OK, now this is dangerous because these people - they all truly believed that they were going to heaven. So even the fact that up to now, most of them have refused to talk to journalists or police officers or doctors - they still believe that they are going to go to heaven, and them being on trial is just a temporary setback because at some point, they will fast again and go to heaven.

RASCOE: That's Kenyan journalist Carey Baraka. Thank you so much for being with us.

BARAKA: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits, 988.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "PAST IS PROLOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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