Inside a Kenyan starvation cult

STORY: (Paul Mackenzie) "Praise Jesus."

This is the moment Kenyan cult leader Paul Mackenzie was being escorted out of the police station.

The 50-year-old former taxi driver has been accused of ordering his followers to starve themselves to death.

Sources say he told his adherents the world was going to end on April 15 and Satan would rule for 1,000 years.

His cult became the focus of national horror with the recent discovery of more than 100 bodies - mostly children - in mass graves in the Shakahola forest of southeast Kenya.

From court records and interviews with relatives of victims, medical workers and a police investigator,

Reuters has pieced together a comprehensive picture of Mackenzie and his cult.

Mackenzie grew up in rural Kwale County in southeastern Kenya.

In the early 1990s, he moved to the coastal town of Malindi, where he worked as a taxi driver.

Fellow driver Japheth Charo said Mackenzie became increasingly focused on religion and started his own church in 2003.

Charo said he and his family joined the church for two years, until Mackenzie's sermons became alarming.

"We have been there for about two years, soon he started verbally attacking other religions like Muslims and Catholics."

In March 2017, police searched Mackenzie's compound in Malindi

and found 43 children living there without attending school. That's according to court documents at the time.

Mackenzie's brother says the cult leader believed education was evil.

"As an individual, he said he wouldn't take his own children to school because of various reasons. He said 'worldly' education does not help anyone. But when you give a child godly education, they are safe, not just on earth but in heaven as well. And he said that he will give his children 'religious' education."

In 2019, the authorities ordered his church to shut down.

That was when Mackenzie relocated to the Shakahola forest, home to his Good News International Church.

There, he lived with hundreds of his followers in makeshift homes of polythene sheeting and thatch.

Stephen Mwiti says his wife joined the cult two years ago.

"My wife told me she'd found a church that would take her to heaven. She said it was wrong to go to school and hospital. I challenged her and told her that she had gone to school. I asked her how she would have read the Bible if she hadn't been to school."

Mwiti fears his wife and six children died in the mass starvation.

Mackenzie told his adherents the world as they knew it was going to end on April 15

and ordered them to starve themselves and their children to death so they could meet Jesus in heaven. That's according to relatives of his followers.

Rebecca Mbetsa, the mother of 31-year-old Mercy Chai, searched for her daughter's remains at the hospital mortuary in Malindi.

"There was a time she got ill and she refused to go to hospital, saying her faith did not allow her to."

Mackenzie planned the mass starvation of cult members in three phases: first children, then women and young men, and finally the remaining men and he himself.

That's according to six of the people including the investigator.

The investigator also says Mackenzie denied that he told anyone not to eat, adding that the cult leader said he himself had been eating.