Stephen Mwiti is one of the hundreds of families who are fearing the worst for their kin amid the ongoing police operation at Chakama Ranch, Shakahola village in Malindi, Kilifi County.

Mwiti’s wife of 10 years, Joan Bahati, left with their six children about eight months ago to join the Good News International Church led by its cultic leader, pastor Paul Mackenzie.

Bahati was also expectant with their seventh child.

Mr Mwiti said when he first met Bahati, she was a loving and humble woman who never raised her voice against him. But that changed when she started watching Paul Mackenzie’s sermons on his TV channel.

For the past seven years, Mwiti said they had been experiencing marital difficulties as Bahati became radicalized and opposed healthcare, family planning and education for their children.

Mwiti said in October 2022, Bahati left with their three girls and three boys, aged between one and nine, saying they were going to meet Jesus in ‘Bethlehem’, referring to the 800-acre woodland, where authorities continue to exhume bodies of victims of the Christian starvation cult.

“I used to take children to hospital and school because she said they were taught these things are earthly and they should shun them. When I washed their uniforms she would never touch them,” Mwiti told reporters.

“I decided to resist because of the children since I knew they were going to suffer if I let them go,” Mwiti said.

He said his efforts to stop Bahati from leaving were futile. He resorted to sending her money for food.

“The last time we spoke was a month ago and she told me that they were okay and waiting to meet Jesus and from that day her mobile phone went off and I have never heard from her again,” said Mwiti.

When Bahati’s phone went off, Mwiti suspected something was not right and went to Shakahola to try and find his wife.

Together with a group of friends, Mwiti said they faced a hostile gang that prohibited anybody who was not a member of the church from accessing the area.

We always heard that people were starving to death and were being buried inside there so I got worried and many times I tried to get access there to look for my family but the hired goons were very hostile and I only kept hoping my wife and children will come back home but now I have little hope that they are alive,” he narrated.

Mwiti said he managed to gain access to ‘Bethlehem’ and even confronted pastor Paul Mackenzie.

“I took five of my friends and we stormed the forest. We were almost killed but we managed to get to ‘Bethlehem’ and I met Mackenzie. I asked him where my family was but he did not give me satisfactory answers. I was told they were somewhere deeper in the forest, but I could not get there. At his place, I saw about 100 people, most of them children and women,” Mwiti said.

His worst fears were confirmed when Mackenzie was arrested on April 14. Mwiti approached survivors and showed them photos of his children and wife.

“I was told my children must have died sometime in November, and my wife a month ago when her phone went off. As for the newborn baby, he was breastfed for a day and then suffocated. They said he had ascended to heaven and that they would meet him there,” said Mwiti.

The distraught man now awaits the process of identifying the bodies which is likely to take some time. On Wednesday, the number of victims linked to the starvation cult climbed to 95.

Another 311 people, including 150 minors, had been reported missing to Red Cross support staff in Malindi.

If it turns out that my family was wiped out, I don’t know where to start. I will have to get another wife and start a new family,” Mwiti said.