MACHAZE, Mozambique -- Filimone Ntembapa had only two choices after the rains failed to come this year. He could move his family while they were still strong enough to walk, or he could watch them starve.
The 51-year-old tribal chief already had seen many of his people flee the village of Butiro in search of food, and he knew the time had come for him to go too.
So last month he packed up his two wives and six children and led them out of Butiro on a dangerous nighttime flight through rebel-held territory to this government-controlled town.
If caught by the rebels, he said, they could have been detained, beaten or worse. But they had to risk it. The alternative was death.
"If we stayed in Butiro, we would all perish because there was nothing to eat," he said, standing under the shade of a large tree in the refugee center, where bags of maize had been distributed.
"Some families remained behind because they are too weak to travel. They will perish," he said, explaining the reality of life without rain for Mozambique's peasant farmers.
Millions of people are threatened with starvation this year as the countries of Southern Africa wither under the severest drought of the century. Across the region, riverbeds have dried up, farmlands have gone brown, and the people are becoming increasingly desperate. Some are living on roots and leaves. Others await relief shipments. Many wander the countryside in search of food.
The drought is most acute in Mozambique, weakened by 17 years of civil war. More than a million people have died in the war, and more than 5 million have been displaced. Even before the drought, Mozambique was one of the world's poorest countries with the world's highest infant death rate.
Now, another 3 million people are at risk of starvation if they do not receive emergency supplies, according to the United Nations. The food is arriving in the country following an urgent U.N. appeal in May, but it is unclear how much will reach the people because the war has cut off supply routes to most areas.
Machaze, for instance, is accessible only by air. A town of 23,000, it has not received supplies by road since 1983. Its population is swelling every day with peasants from the hinterland who risk the dangers of the roads.
"We're having serious problems in supporting these people," said David Antonio, the local administrator. "The situation in Machaze is dramatic. We've started having deaths because of starvation."
U.N. officials in Maputo, the capital, hope to avert starvation on a level comparable to Ethiopia in 1984, when hundreds of thousands died before the world was aware of the disaster.
The situation in Mozambique threatens fewer people than does the one in the East African country of Somalia, where hundreds already are dying every day from drought and war. The United Nations says1.5 million Somalis are at imminent risk of dying and 4.5 million are nearing starvation.
Also in Mozambique's favor, unlike in Somalia, the main cities remain under government control and the ports are functional, which means food can reach much of the population. The big problem is the countryside, which is inaccessible because of the war.
Across the country, local facilities are being strained to the limit by an ever-growing influx of hungry peasants. Officials in other districts also are reporting deaths, some along the road among people who began their journeys in weakened condition and grew weaker with each day they did not find food.
"People wait until the last minute to leave. Of course you have some dying on the road," said Jean Claude Legrand, director of the World Food Program office in Chimoio, the capital of Manica province, where Machaze is located.
The cruel combination of drought and war has created a special new crisis for Mozambique, which has seen an unremitting series of crises since it became independent from Portugal in 1975.
"Mozambique has been a country of calamities for many years," President Joaquim Chissano said in an interview. "We have had floods, hurricanes, hailstorms, drought and war."
The war started immediately after independence, with the rebels first getting assistance from white-ruled Rhodesia, which became black-ruled Zimbabwe. Later, South Africa provided major support for the rebel group, known as Renamo.
For its part, Mozambique's Marxist government supported rebel movements in the two countries.
South Africa says it no longer officially supports the Mozambican rebels. Mr. Chissano says he accepts the assurance of his neighbor but believes Renamo still receives help from individuals in South Africa.
And Mozambique's government is no longer Marxist. Mr. Chissano has embraced a program to restructure and rebuild his nation by encouraging private enterprise and democratic ideals.
The rebuilding has begun in the major cities, islands of stability and modern life surrounded by war and undeveloped countryside. New businesses are starting up, once-empty markets have food grown in urban "green zones," and major renovations are under way with the assistance of the World Bank and private investors, mostly from South Africa.
Yet the war persists, with rebels attacking government centers and kidnapping civilians to work for the rebellion. Some say it is less a rebellion than a string of atrocities aimed at keeping the country destabilized and unproductive, both of which it has been for almost 20 years.
Human rights organizations repeatedly have criticized the brutal tactics of the rebels, who have committed gruesome massacres, destroyed schools and health clinics, and routinely abducted civilians or stolen food from the population.
"If you ever said you had no food, they would beat you," said Rosa Giza, who left Renamo territory for a refugee settlement at Inchope, a village in Sofala province east of here.
The drought has cut off the main food supply for Renamo, which is losing much of its population base as hundreds of thousands of people move from rebel areas to government centers where food is more available.
"People are moving throughout the country looking for food and water," said Dan O'Dell, Mozambique director of the U.N. Children's Fund. "It's one thing for Renamo to say they control an area, but if there are no people in that area, what good is it?"
In addition to the pressures created by nature, international relief agencies are pressuring the rebels and the government to call a cease-fire so food shipments can move unhindered through the country.
In the past two months, 15 government relief trucks have been attacked and raided. The roads are unsafe, and airlifts are expensive and inadequate for transporting the huge amounts of food required to avert disaster.
"If food isn't moved, we'll see a rapid escalation in deaths," warned Patrick Buckley of the World Food Program, a Rome-based U.N. organization.
The agency says foreign donors have contributed 357,000 tons of food for Mozambique, more than two-thirds of the 500,000 tons needed. But because of the logistical problems created by the war, much of the food sits in ports and warehouses, where theft is a big problem.
"We've got good supplies of food coming into the country," said Peter Simkins, Mozambique director of the U.N. Development Program. "The problem is getting it to the people."
Mr. Chissano said his government is willing to let emergency food supplies go to all parts of the country, but Renamo has refused to allow food convoys through its territory because of the fear that government soldiers will follow.
Talks are continuing on that subject, and in the latest breakthrough in negotiations, Mr. Chissano agreed recently to meet for the first time with rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama.
Mr. Chissano says he is ready for the war to end and for Mozambique to begin to heal. "Today Renamo says they want about the same things we want -- peace, equality and freedom. That's why I say there's no reason for war," he said.
In the countryside, the people who have been the biggest victims are also ready for peace. They say they have never understood the reasons for war.
"I don't care what this is or that is. All I want is to survive," says Joseph Fazande, a 39-year-old farmer who was once kidnapped by Renamo and is now living in the refugee camp at Inchope. "What all of us want is for this war to end."