Thousands of refugees fled western Kenya Saturday on buses escorted by armed soldiers, streaming down roads strewn with downed power lines, burnt out vehicles and the corpses of others killed when they tried to escape an explosion of postelection ethnic violence.
Behind them, thousands more huddled at church compounds and a police station in the city of Eldoret as wailing relatives tried to identify hacked, burned and strangled family members in a mortuary so full of bodies they lay piled wall-to-wall across bloody floors.
At Cheptiret, 12 miles south of Eldoret, bus after packed bus mostly full of people from President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe drove slowly past soldiers loyal to the president who stood guard at a roadblock controlled hours earlier by a machete-wielding mob.
The struggle between Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga over who won a bitterly contested Dec. 27 presidential vote has ignited some of the worst ethnic unrest in Kenya’s history, destroying its image as a stable democracy and a top tourist destination boasting some of the best wildlife viewing on earth. Unrest has left hundreds dead and displaced at least 250,000 people across Kenya.
Kibaki was declared winner of the poll by a mere 200,000 votes, but the head of the electoral commission and the country’s attorney general have questioned the results, saying the tally must be independently reviewed.
Kenya hosts a mosaic of more than 40 tribes, and tensions between them have rarely boiled into open, widespread conflict. But the prosperity and power of the influential Kikuyu minority has spawned a simmering resentment among some for years.
The worst atrocity of the crisis occurred at a Protestant church on the outskirts of Eldoret last week. A mob set fire to the church where hundreds of people had taken refuge. Many were burned alive. Those caught trying to escape the flames were hunted down and hacked with machetes. Dozens of Kikuyus were killed there.
Philip Cheptinga, a doctor at the Eldoret’s Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital—the country’s second largest—said most victims had been killed with machetes known as “pangas,” shot with bows and arrows, or burned.
The hospital’s morgue was built for 60 bodies, but on Saturday it held about 210. Cheptinga said family members had collected at least 20 more corpses.
Hospital administrator Micah Kosgei said 123 corpses from election-related violence had been brought to the hospital.
Bodies, including those of children, were stacked two and three to a gurney inside barely refrigerated freezers. One man had a long, deep gash, apparently from a machete, across the side of his skull. Only the charred skeleton of another remained. In another room, an elderly woman lay on top of a stretcher, the fraying rope that strangled her still wrapped around her neck.
One man, who declined to be identified because he feared for his safety, said his brother was similarly slaughtered Tuesday. “Chop, chop, cutting,” he said, describing the death. “There is going to be revenge, more people are going to be killed,” said the man.