(Malindi) Eight new bodies were exhumed on Wednesday in Shakahola Forest in eastern Kenya, bringing to 98 the death toll in a sect that advocated extreme fasting to “meet Jesus”.

After announcing on Tuesday evening a pause in the search for mass graves to conduct autopsies and unclog the morgues, the authorities resumed the excavations on Wednesday morning.

“We had a lot of trouble today with the rain, but in the end we got eight bodies out,” a police source said, adding, “We will continue operations tomorrow” on Thursday.

Research has so far found 39 people alive in the vast 325-hectare bush area surveyed by investigators, regional prefect Rhoda Onyancha said earlier today.

A total of 22 people were taken into custody, she added.

Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, the self-proclaimed “pastor” of this group called the Good News International Church, is in jail after turning himself in to police on April 14 during the first police operations in the forest. He is due in court on May 2.

The revelation of what has come to be known as the “Shakahola Forest Massacre” has caused shock in Kenya and prompted widespread calls for a crackdown on cults in the predominantly Christian country.

Families of cult members have flocked to Malindi City Hospital Mortuary to learn the fate of their loved ones.

Among them, Issa Ali is waiting, without much hope, to find out if his mother is among the bodies discovered. A follower of the sect, she took him to the Shakahola forest in 2020, before his father took him out last year.

“The last time I saw my mother was in February. She was so weak,” the 16-year-old explained.

Hassan Musa, an official with the Kenya Red Cross, said 311 people, “including 150 minors”, have been reported missing to the organization in Malindi.

“These are people mainly from Kenya, but also from Tanzania and Nigeria. Some have been missing for years,” he said.

Investigators discover with horror every day the scale of this “massacre”, in which the majority of children appear, said three sources close to the investigation.

According to him, between 50 and 60 percent of the bodies recovered are children, found wrapped in cotton fabrics in shallow graves.

“We don’t know how many mass graves, how many bodies, we can find,” Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said on Tuesday, adding that the crimes committed were serious enough to warrant terrorism charges against Paul Mackenzie Nthenge.

Kenyan President William Ruto has vowed to take action against self-proclaimed pastors such as Mr Nthenge “who want to use religion to promote shady and unacceptable ideologies”.

This case also raises many questions about the flaws of the police and judicial authorities, who had known the “pastor” for several years.

He was first arrested in 2017 on charges of “radicalization” for advocating against sending children to school, saying education was not recognized in the Bible.

He was arrested again last month, after two starving children were killed by their sect-linked parents. He dismissed the charges and was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings (about 1,000 Canadian dollars).