January 2, 2008 / 10:41 AM / 10 years ago

Blood in church as Kenya falls into tribal violence

KIAMBAA, Kenya (Reuters) - Even as Kenya Red Cross staff cleared the last of the bodies from the church’s smoldering remains, traces of the massacre still haunted it.

<p>A woman cries in front of a church where some 30 people were burned alive in Eldoret January 1, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

Pungent smoke rose from the blackened rubble where walls once sat. A brightly-patterned piece of a dress with burnt edges lay in ash. Underneath it: fragments of white bone.

About 30 Kikuyus died when a mob torched the church near Eldoret in the Rift Valley on Tuesday -- a slaughter evoking memories of ethnic violence usually associated with other countries in Africa, not one of its most stable.

“I saw them burn it,” said Joseph Kwasila. “We ran away and they chased us to the main road. They were like lions in a rage, with sticks and machetes.”

Thousands of President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe fled the region on Wednesday, running across the wastes of an ethnic battleground few Kenyans can believe is their country.

Violence has erupted across opposition strongholds in the east African nation over the results of a disputed presidential election that saw Kibaki just defeat challenger Raila Odinga amid accusations of rigging by both sides.

The death toll from four days of clashes has passed 300, rights groups said, in what the government called an opposition-led “genocide.” The opposition says the government is to blame.

At the church in Kiambaa, a primarily Kikuyu village near Eldoret town, misshapen cooking pots and sandals lay next to a pile of charred, mangled bicycles blocking the entrance.

Outside, a hastily-abandoned wicker handbag spilled its contents on the grass -- a wallet, a pair of sandals, a scarf.

“I‘m leaving this place,” said a Kikuyu, Simon Mwangi, as he made his way up the road carrying a big white sack. “If they can burn people in a church, how can I be safe?”

<p>A view of a burnt church in the Kibera slums of Nairobi January 1, 2008. REUTERS/Noor Khamis</p>

Thousands have taken shelter in churches and police stations across Eldoret town, the main city in the fertile Rift Valley about 300 km (190 miles) north of Nairobi, prompting a humanitarian crisis as food and water run short.

“We’ve been sleeping outside of the airport. Can you imagine how cold they were?” asked children’s home operator Patrick Kariuki, gesturing to 23 youthful charges with him.

“I never thought Kenya could be like this. They’re killing us because we voted for Kibaki. Maybe the election was rigged. Why don’t they go to court instead of inciting?”

Though people from many of Kenya’s 42 tribes have been killed, it is Kibaki’s tribe -- the nation’s biggest, and economically dominant -- that has seen organized targeting.

<p>A man wipes his face in front of a church where some 30 people were burned alive in Eldoret January 1, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

Scores of sharply dressed Kenyans with piles of luggage waited to get flights to Nairobi at Eldoret airport after youths blocked the main roads out with tree trunks and rocks.

Police estimate that roughly 75,000 Kenyans have fled their homes. Some have crossed into neighboring states -- a reversal for a nation that for decades has accepted the victims of conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.

In Eldoret, a Reuters reporter came across a roadblock manned by youths who fled when they saw police approaching.

“They are asking ‘Who are you?’ in Kalenjin language. If you don’t understand, you are removed and killed with a panga (machete),” said Jane Chepchirchir, one of scores of people at Eldoret airport trying to flee to Nairobi.

Some at the roadblocks have ordered people to produce their national identity cards and have killed those with Kikuyu names, witnesses said.

The Rift Valley is home primarily to the Kalenjin tribe of former president Daniel arap Moi, but many Kikuyus have moved there to farm and intermarried, as in Chepchirchir’s case.

“I feel so bad these are my people killing, but Kikuyus are also my people because of my husband, so I am in the middle. Can’t we all just be Kenyans?” Chepchirchir asked.

Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Bryson Hull and Philippa Fletcher

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