A Massacre in a Kenyan Church

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A man wipes his face in front of the remains of a church where 50 people were burned alive in Eldoret January 1, 2008.

The violence that has rocked Kenya since its controversial presidential election last week reached a horrific level on Tuesday when 50 people, including women and children, were burned alive in a church in the country's west after they had sought sanctuary there from a mob infuriated over the allegedly stolen vote. The victims in the city of Eldoret were from the Kikuyu tribe, which makes up about 22% of the country and backed President Mwai Kibaki's bid for a second term. Kibaki had claimed victory by a margin of a little over 200,000 after several suspicious moves appeared to erase his rival's huge lead in the count.

Post-election violence has now killed at least 250 and forced some 70,000 people to flee their homes in the days since the vote, which has now been recognized by the European Union and the United States as seriously flawed. His opponent, Raila Odinga, has refused to recognize the results; he has the support of the Luo tribe, which makes up about 13% of the country, as well as several smaller tribes. There are now fears that Kenya, a famous tourist destination with a booming economy, is teetering on almost total collapse, and the possibility of genocidal war between Kikuyus and their allies on one side and the Luo-affiliated tribes, who supported Odinga. "We never expected the savagery to go so far," police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said in Nairobi.

People reached by phone in Eldoret said they were cowering behind locked doors in their homes, terrified of going out on the streets. It was unclear whether the killings would lead to wider clashes. Eldoret saw massive violence in elections in 1992 and 1997 as well. "We cannot move out of the house," said Elijah Ombiru, a father of four in the city. "People are being killed everywhere and the situation is very, very worse."

Analysts and U.N. officials saw echoes of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, when churches were turned into slaughterhouses for some of the 800,000 moderate Hutu and Tutsi victims. "Maybe in Burundi or Rwanda, but I never thought this could happen in Kenya," one U.N. official said.

More trouble is looming. Odinga has appealed for a million of his supporters to join him on Thursday in downtown Nairobi to inaugurate him as the "people's President." Kibaki's government came out Tuesday to say the rally would not be allowed to take place, but Odinga's supporters appeared to be in no mood to compromise.

Odinga supporters in Nairobi's enormous slum district Kibera said that if Odinga called them out, they will come, no matter what the police say. The supporters told TIME that they believe Odinga is the legitimately elected leader of the country, and that the only solution is for Kibaki to step down. "We have been patient. We have lowered our tempers down a bit because we want to get directives from our leaders," says Morris Otieno, 45. "If they say 'Let us go to town, we will go peacefully. If police are going to interfere, you can expect what will happen — hell will break loose."

Odinga's supporters can point to evidence to back up their anger. On Tuesday, the European Union came out with a final assessment that said the elections "were marred by a lack of transparency in the processing and tallying of presidential results, which raises concerns about the accuracy of the final results." Perhaps even more damaging, five members of Kenya's Electoral Commission — which Kibaki had packed with loyalists in the last year — have come forward to demand an inquiry into the vote.

Kibera, the hotbed of anti-Kibaki fury, was otherwise calm on Tuesday, as the capital seemed to be taking a deep breath on New Year's Day. People who had stayed behind closed doors for days finally emerged in search of food at markets that were opening at last. Residents picked through the ashes of a massive outdoor market that had been burned to the ground. Some tied string around the empty plots that were once their stalls; in one, the only recognizable remnants were a stack of charred and smoldering onions.

In the depths of Kibera, where few outsiders dare to visit, charred barricades of trash and tires still litter the streets, and wrecks of cars now block the railroad tracks made famous in The Constant Gardener, the Ralph Fiennes movie that was filmed there in 2004. The damage to the area has been so bad that it is impossible to find water to drink or even a bottle of Coca Cola to purchase. Despite their support of Odinga, some residents wonder whether their rage was worthwhile.

"The houses are torched, the kiosks have been torched, but what have we gained with it?" says Yusuf Ibrahim, 24, who has lived in the slum all his life. "We've gained nothing. Where is Mwai Kibaki, where is Raila to come here and do what's necessary? We are still the same people who are here, we are the ones who are suffering. There are food shortages, our bellies are hungry. Where are the politicians?"