On the main street of the town of Luuq in Gedo Province, a remote region of southwest Somalia, a boy squatted and painstakingly gathered up a handful of corn that had fallen from a donkey cart and been strewn in the dust. The corn was distinctive looking, hard yellow kernels of the sort donated by the United States to help feed the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have sought asylum in Somalia from warfare and drought in neighboring Ethiopia.

Further down the unpaved street, past the cutoffs into the arid bush leading toward the eight refugee camps that sprawl along the banks of the nearby Juba River and past the bridge guarded by soldiers against the possibility of a cross-border raid by Ethiopians, the town market was in full swing.

Women sat in rows selling heaping baskets of U.S. corn and buckets of refined white sugar of the sort donated by the European Economic Community. On a side street, small stores were stacked with gunny sacks of relief food bearing warnings that the contents were "not to be sold or exchanged."

But food is a precious thing in Somalia, and if it is not watched, it will get taken by the handful or by the ton.

Lung is by no means unique. Refugee-intended foodstuffs have turned up in markets around the country, from small trading centers to shops in the capital city of Mogadishu, and have been found in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Foot theft is a fact of life in any such relief program anywhere, but John Wood, an experienced relief administrator who heads the United Nations' world food program here, said that the rate of loss in Somalia has been exceptional. "I would say that globally, anywhere in the world, a 3 percent loss would be termed doing well. A 10 percent loss, or even 20 percent, would not be shocking."

When pressed to make an estimate about Somalia, Wood said that at camps in the southern part of the county, "30 to 50 percent" of the food has been diverted recently. Other officials willing to hazard a guess in this country of few statistics estimate that in the worst cases as much as 60 percent of the food is stolen on its way to the refugee camps from Mogadishu and other coastal ports.

The culprits and the culpable are many. Drivers hired to haul the foodstuffs have made off with entire 20-ton truckloads, sometimes stealing the lorries as well. Camp commanders, charged with administering the refugee settlements, have siphoned off portions. Some regional Somali government officials have been implicated and even the military has been pilfering a share of the refugee food.

These people, though, have only been taking easy advantage of a shoddy relief program jointly managed by the Mogadishu office of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees and the National Refugee Commission.

The refugee commission, a patched-together Somali government agency without an official budget, has been ill-prepared to help administer the multimillion-dollar relief system and the understaffed U.N. agency has been without the wherewithal to control what has become the largest refugee program in Africa, with about 650,000 refugees now living in 35 camps scattered throughout the hinterlands.

It has been three years since the first international relief aid began trickling and then pouring into Somalia to sustain the influx of Somali nomads and farmers fleeing the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. The Ogaden is a place of cyclical drought and chronic warfare between the Ethiopain army and a Somali guerrilla organization trying to wrest control.

Only in the past few months has the U.N. begun a serious attempt to straighten out inefficiencies in the relief program. But there is still no accounting system to trace the flow of relief goods from port to refugees, few accurate records in the camps and no method of registering or counting the refugees.

The failure to count the refugees accurately has acutally been a hidden boon. The government's inflated official estimate of 1.3 million, which has brought in a surfeit of relief food, has served to counteract the worst of the thievery and prevent any large-scale starvation.

Malnutrition is commonplace, though, particularly among diseased children and the weakest of the refugees. Apart from the thievery, erratic deliveries of relief food have left refugees at some camps living on corn and oil for months at a time, waiting for the arrival of milk and other foods meant to provide protein in their diet.

The Somali government has added to the current chaos by exaggerating the number of its refugees and their food needs. But it is the United Nations and the Western countries donating the aid that failed to predict, or failed to care, that aid without organization would encourage corruption and bring about an international embarrassment.

Last year the U.N. and the West dumped a total of $132 million in relief aid into Somalia, a country whose gross national product is only $400 million. The aid included some 200,000 metric tons of food, with more than half of that donated by the United States.

The results have not been surprising, considering that Somalia is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, with few resources to support its population of 4 million people. A largely arid strip of territory jackknifed around the Horn of Africa, the country has a few sizable cities and a small agricultural region but otherwise is a place of vast plains vegetated with thornbush where nomads eke out a bare survival. Its principal exports consist of livestock and bananas.

Most of the food leaking from the relief system has been vanishing after delivery to the camps, directly from camp food warehouses or during distributions to the refugees.

In many of the camps in Gedo Province, for example, trucks are frequently heard rumbling by in the night on their way to or from raids on the warehouses. hA few have been caught by relief officials or irate crowds of refugees. At a camp in Hiran Province, a Somali doctor was recently caught stealing tons of food that he had requisitioned under the pretense of supplying special rations to about 1,000 lactating mothers and children who turned out to be nonexistent. Refugees at the same camp complained bitterly that camp officials had been forcing them to sign for twice the rations they were receiving.

One volunteer nurse, working at an outdoor dispensary at Booh camp in Hiran, said food supplies were chronically unpredictable. "Sometimes the refugees get food, sometimes they don't," she said. The nurse was setting up an intravenous system for a severely malnourished child lying on the ground next to its mother, hooking the bag of IV fluids onto a tree branch. The mother explained through a translator that she had been without a ration for three weeks and that her child had gradually stopped wanting to eat.

The failures in the relief system have frustrated and disillusioned many of the relief workers, who spend long evenings dissecting the events.

"It's a very depressed and fragile economy," said one Red Cross official who had been assigned to Hiran Province. "Then the international community comes along and injects a massive amount of aid that is virtually cash. You're going to hae a reaction in the population -- they're going to nick what they can."

"It's a bloody mess," added an American relief worker who had dropped by the Red Cross outpost for an evening glass of whiskey. "There's no record-keeping, no accountability. Have you ever gone and taken a look at the NRC [refugee commission] office out here? There are no file cabinets, no paper, no pencils. They pay bills with refugee food."

"Sugar is like gold," the other man said. In the local markets of Hiran and Gedo provinces, a gunny sack of refined white sugar sells for as much as $200, a bag of hard corn for about $20 and a drum of soybean oil for $350.

The Western international community has long been aware of the problem that is diplomatically referred to as "food diversion." Last August two U.S. congressional staffers toured Somalia and reported their findings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They wrote that "donor agencies do not know where the food they have provided hs gone" and warned that the provision of so much food "to a country as poor as Somalia without adequate accounting . . . invites the diversion of food for personal profit."

Diplomats began applying pressure quietly to get matters straightened out, but it was not until this spring tht the U.N. refugee commission and NRC wee able to organize and agree on a possible solution, the importation of a team of logistics experts from CARE.

The team from CARE, a private relief organization, has taken some first steps to organize guarded convoys of food trucks, station a network of monitors at the camps and set up a tight record-keeping system. Everyone is watching intently to see if CARE can break the deeply rooted pattern of thievery.

One of those watching is Robert Luneberg, U.S. Food for Peace officer in Mogadishu. Luneberg has a habit of wincing when he spots sacks of corn trundling through the city streets on donkey carts, hoping that on second glance he won't see the stars and stripes and handshake symbol that are emblazoned on bags of U.S. relief food. Luneberg, who was belatedly assigned a year ago to oversee the delivery of U.S. donations, frets because he has little official authority once the foodstuffs are unloaded onto the docks.

"It's bad out there. We're very, very concerned about it, both this office and the embassy. We're bringing what pressure we can. We've been putting pressure on for a year," he said.

"I can tell you that a significant amount of food is not getting where it should," he said. "But what do you think it would be like in the U.S., or anywhere else, if food was distributed without vouchers? Would it be any different? No, everybody would help themselves. I can also tell you that we have talked to the Somali government, to the highest levels, and at the highest levels they want to do it right."

Abdi M. Tarah, who heads the Somali NRC with the title of extraordinary commissioner for refugees, is adamant on this point. "I would like to request you as a journalist," he said at the end of a lengthy interview, "to tell the truth about this, that we are not going to divert the food of refugees, but share everything we have because these people are our people. The thieves are not approved by the government; we are fighting the thieves. We have arrested the drivers we have found stealing. We have suspended officials for not supervising correctly."

Despite objectins from Tarah and other Somali officials, the U.N. and the donor countries have provisionally decided to reduce drastically the amount of refugee aid for this year. Among them, the United States has planned to cut its original commitment in half.

But the doors are also faced with an obligation to first straighten out the imbroglio they helped create. If the relief system remains in disarray while the aid is reduced, the refugees may face starvation rather than food shortages.