The young Alevi Mislem woman sat in the car next to her husband clutching a dead chicken to her bosom and sobbing.

"They've burned down our house," she cried. "Our neighbors have burned down our house."

Her husband, dirty and unshaven, pointed at a pile of clothing in the back seat and said, "This is all we were able to save."

He cursed and drove toward Milonu, the district where the town's Alevis took refuge after they were attacked by rightwing Sunni Moslem mobs last Friday. At least 24 people, most of them Alevis, were massacred in the mini-civil war that ensued. Armed civilians erected barricades as the centuries-long peaceful coexistence between the town's Sunni majority and the Alevi community came to an abrupt end.

Similar troubles were expected elsewhere is Turkey, which is suffering from one of the worst plagues of factional violence anywhere.

Alevis are a branch of the Shiites. They make up an estimated eight to 10 million of Turkey's 45 million population. Most of them live in the belt of provinces that stretches eastwards north of Ankara.

Alevis generally lean toward leftwing parties or ideologies, while Sunnis support right-wing grouping. Terrorism and the sharp polarization that started in the late 1970s inflamed hostility between the two sects that had been dormant for nearly 500 years. The enmity has been exploited by extreme left and right-wing groups, which are sowing the seeds of a civil war.

In December 1978, 107 people were killed in Kahramanmaras in sectarian clashes that led to the declaration of martial law under which half the population now lives.

The couple in the car were probably the last Alevis to leave Corum, a market town with an estimated 50,000 Sunnis and 20,000 Alevis, for the safety of Milonu.

Other Alevis did not make it.

At the state hospital overlooking the prosperous town, soldiers unloaded the bodies of six men and a woman from an Army truck. They were Alevi peasants in tattered clothes, trapped by Sunnis while loading their household goods in a cart to flee to Milonu. They were dragged to a wheat field outside Corum, tied together and shot at such close range that their faces were black with gunpowder.

It was only swift intervention by the Turkish Army, which opened fire on the mobs, that prevented large-scale bloodshed.

"If the Army had kept out, we would have wiped out all of the Alevis," said a Sunni militant at the marketplace." There will be no peace until we do."

We were standing in the derbs of destroyed Alevi shops. The destruction was clearly pinpointed because all Sunni shops were intact. All Alevi homes in the Sunni districts were similarly destroyed and looted.

The Sunni district was dotted with slogans of the ultra-rightist Nationalist Action Party. "Our blood may flow but victory will be Islam's," declared one. Another one said, "Milonu, your end has come."

Until a month or so ago, there was no fighting between the sects. Troubles started after the May 28 assassination of Gun Sazak, the Nationalist Action Party deputy chairman, in Ankara.

The party is Turkey's fourth largest and is led by Alpasian Turkes, a 63-year-old retired Army colonel. Turkes' party is the principal party in the parliamentary coalition that is holding Suleyman Demirel minority government is power. The party is benefiting from state protection and political patronage.

National Action Party followers are widely believed to be among the main combatants in the extreme left and rightwing clashes, which are claiming an average of eight lives a day.

"Everything started after Sazak was killed," explained a Sunni shopkeeper.

"The NAP boys decided to teach the left a lesson but they could not raise popular support. So they decided to turn it into a religious battle. They succeeded. I am afraid this will continue and spread to other towns."

Demirel and Turkes have blamed the incidents in Corum, 162 miles northeast of Ankara, on "communists and traitors." The incident might have been ignited by communists; there are many among the Milonu Alevis. But there was nevertheless ample provocation by the National Action Party followers, and once they started, the riots turned into a massacre of the Alevis. When the riots ended, the party, which has partisan supporters in the local police and the government, had taken control of Corum.

The Alevi community is frightened that some of the wounded have not gone to the state hospital in the Sunni district out of fear for their lives.

A man with a badly swollen arm told me at Milonu that he had been attacked by a Sunni who hit him with a shovel. "The pharmacist is looking after it, he said. "It is better to have a broken arm than a battered head."

On the Sunni side, right-wing militants are forcing neutral people to take part. Men are being forced to stand guard at the barricades to show what side they are on.

A civil servent said that his wife was visited by militants who demanded to know why her husband was not at the barricades. "Tell him to come. Otherwise we will think that he is on the side of the red Alevis," the wife was told. "What could I do?" asked the man.

Slowly, the ties that bind the Turkish nation are being severed by extremists whom the state appears to be unable to bring to heel. The poor are being driven against the rich, the Alevi against the Sunni, the Kurd against the Turk, the worker against the boss. The schism is being widened by widespread poverty and discontent brought about by economic crisis.

Acting president Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil met this week with Demirel and Bulent Ecevit, the leader of the social democratic main opposition, to discuss ways to unite against the country's problems. But the politicians give no sign that they are ready to put aside their differences to confront the currents that threaten Turkey with civil war.

The Turkish Army appears to be the only institution to have has preserved both its sanity and integrity. The generals are distraught but show no tendency toward taking over. They are reluctant partly because the social and economic situation has disintegrated so badly that there is little that they could do if they took power.

A truck passed by carrying the household goods of a family leaving Corum. "Those who can sell or are able to afford it are getting out,' said the shopkeeper. "There is no future here any more."

Sadly, this seems to be the opinion of a growing number of Turks.