CHEPTIRET, Kenya -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.
Wide-eyed passengers pointed out the windows, hands covering their mouths, as they gawked at two bodies laying in the dirt along the roadside beside the charred hulk of a white minibus.
The two slain men had been pelted with stones by Kalenjin mobs several days earlier and then set ablaze, said one man in Cheptiret, Bernard Kimutai, an ethnic Kalenjin who said he was a human rights worker.
"They failed to identify themselves properly, and then tried to run," he said, alluding to his belief they were Kikuyu.
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.
Ken Wafulah, director of Eldoret's independent Center for Human Rights and Democracy, estimated up to 5,000 people left Eldoret for the capital, Nairobi, on Saturday in five different convoys that included long trails of private cars.
Those who could not afford to move stayed behind, some displaced within their own town, sleeping in the open around churches in which they sought refuge.
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.
"You haven't even seen the casualty ward," Cheptinga said. "We're doing our level-best to cope with this ... and we're still getting more."
Hospital officials said two Kikuyus had been killed and one wounded early Saturday by a Kalenjin mob on the outskirts of Eldoret.
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.
Emily Bunoro said her nephew, an ethnic Luhya pastor, had been forced from his home by a group of Kalenjin who gave him a bow and arrow and told him to fight earlier this week. He escaped and hid in a pit latrine at what he thought was a friendly Kikuyu home. But its owners, fearing for their lives, killed him with machetes, Bunoro said.
As the man's body was removed from a pile among dozens of others, lowered into a waiting wooden coffin and loaded onto an ambulance to be taken away for burial, his wife Victoria Atemba wept in the arms of her sister.
Twelve miles north of Eldoret in the rural countryside, a group of Kalenjin men buried one of their own. Residents said he had been shot inexplicably as he tried to buy milk. Wafulah, the rights worker, said police had killed the man as he and a group of others prepared to carry out raids on the Kikuyu community.
"It's only these extrajudicial police killings that are restraining them," Wafula said of the Kalenjin.
But most Kalenjin don't have firearms, "and they're afraid their may be reprisals," he added.
The government has deployed reinforcements of armed security forces to Eldoret who have cleared roads of rocks and tree trunks and taken back roadblocks from militias.