When skeletal babies with dead brown eyes began staring through television screens at the world last fall, a cure for Ethiopia's famine seemed to outsiders to be so terribly simple: They are starving; give them food. The West produces far more food than it can eat anyhow.

Driven by the intolerable, televised images of misery, donor nations and private relief agencies gave Ethiopia more food in less time than they have ever given any country -- nearly a half million tons since January; 160,000 tons this month alone. Rock-and-roll superstars, touched by the pictures and singing about the unity of man, continue to raise millions of dollars that will dispatch still more food and development aid.

Yet more than six months after the crusade was launched, it is clear that free food alone cannot cure what ails Ethiopia. All that money is not changing the priorities of the government here, nor of the competing governments that prop it up, nor of the rebels that keep trying to take Ethiopia apart.

In this, the world's poorest country, Africa's longest running civil war grinds on. Ethiopia's military regime, challenged by newly arrived hordes of Western aid givers demanding reforms that motivate farmers to grow more food, is sticking with rigid Marxist policies that tolerate no dissent. In the meantime, superpower gamesmanship has moved into the world of famine-relief policy.

And Ethiopian children are still starving. Why? To understand, it may be more useful for Westerners to dwell less on those compelling images of children, and more on three other scenes:

At Assab, Ethiopia's main port on the Red Sea, mountains of donated food rot in the desert sun. Thousands of polypropelene bags of grain, weakened by two month's exposure to the desiccating heat, have burst open. A freak cloudburst in early May drenched the grain and it has begun to ferment. Assab, crammed with 103,000 tons of donated food, about twice as much as the port can properly accommodate, smells like a brewery.

The Ethiopian army could have transported much of this food before it was ruined, according to United Nations transportation specialists. The army has enough trucks, but it was busy with a dry-season offensive against rebels in the north. Even when army trucks were made available (as they periodically are under U.N. pressure), wartime security prevents them from moving around the clock. Rebels ambush army trucks that carry food to the north. Last month they shot and killed a U.N. Children's Fund official whose crime was to ride in a government jeep.

Eskidanu Wolde Amlake was starving last year up north in the drought-cursed Tigray region. This year, in the verdant southwest highlands of Ethiopian, he has a corn crop that reaches his eyeballs. It was planted last December after the Marxist military regime here resettled Eskidanu, his wife, six children and his entire village to the fertile, unpopulous Illubabor region. These Tigrayans live on the side of a hill surrounded by orange, wild coffee and mango trees. Except for the white-tailed Colobus monkeys that gambol in the trees, the view from their village is reminiscent of Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains. "We find it is very fine here, but sometimes we don't have enough medicine," says Eskidanu.

Development specialists in Ethiopia agree that some resettlement of famine victims from the north to regions such as Illubabor is essential to save lives and allow for northern land to be reclaimed from overuse, deforestation and erosion. A recent World Bank report concludes: "A measure of population relocation is absolutely desirable."

Yet none of the major international donors here supports Ethiopia's resettlement scheme, except the Soviet Union. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which a decade ago prepared studies encouraging resettlement in Ethiopia, now leads the opposition, demanding that all its food, money and medicine be kept away from the likes of Eskidanu and his family.

A third image comes out of Addis Ababa, the capital and Ethiopia's dominant city. It is late evening, well after dinner and about an hour before the midnight curfew that empties the city's streets of everyone but soldiers with machine guns.

In the living room of a house guarded by a tall corrugated metal fence, two middle- aged, middle-class brothers, both of them government technocrats, are sitting with a reporter. They are drinking tella, a potent homemade mead, and talking, very softly, about fear.

One of the men has a 21-year-old son, just released from seven years in prison. The son had taken up arms in the streets of Addis Ababa against the revolutionary government when it came into power. Both men also have a disident brother who remains in prison.

"It is too late for us. In my office I cannot even discuss what I think of this government. There is a cadre sitting next to me. He is always listening," says one brother. "We are all cobwebbed by fear. And the government, like a spider, is eating us. It can do anything it wants. It makes you cry."

Despite its renown as a country where people starve, Ethiopia is endowed with some of Africa's most fertile farmland. The soil here is thick and loamy, not thin and sandy as in much of Africa. Despite its renown as a country plagued by drought, 30 years of weather records here show that most of Ethiopia's fertile land regularly receives plenty of rain.

"It is an absolute scandal that there is famine in this country," says Guido Gryseels, an agricultural economist at the International Livestock Center for Africa. "This is a highland country with excellent potential. It could easily become the grain baseket for Africa."

Yet Ethiopia's small farmers are centuries away from taking advantage of that potential. They cultivate only 15 percent of the country's arable land, using techniques that are 300 to 400 years old. There are no traditional methods for storing water in Ethiopia. Three-quarters of Ethiopia's surface water flows out of the country without being used.

What is worse, according to agriculture specialists, farm policies in this country -- where about 85 percent of the economy relies on small farmers -- conspire to keep farmers from growing more than they need for themselves and their families.

Most subsistence farmers are forced to sell a large proportion of their meager surpluses to the government's Agricultural Marketing Corporation at prices far below those paid by private traders. This year, for instance, the government's price for 100 kilograms of barley was $14; the market price was $50.

Under the 11-year-old land reform program of the revolutionary government, small farmers cannot be sure, from one year to the next, if they will be farming the same piece of land. Peasant associations can carve up or reassign land as they see fit. So farmers often do not improve their land by clearing stones, planting trees or using antierosion measures. Says one farm expert here: "Even in the high-potential farmlands, farmers produce just enough for themselves and say stuff it for the others."

The government came under pressure earlier this year from the World Bank to reform farm policies. In return for loans and grants that would help pull Ethiopian agricultural technology out of the Middle Ages, the bank wanted policy reform that would give farmers incentives to use the improved seed and fertilizer that produce more food.

"If you don't get the incentives right, none of this technological stuff is going to work," said one World Bank official.

Goaded by the bank, Mengistu Haile Miriam, Ethiopia's leader, appointed a three- member cabinet-level commission to study farm policy. But, according to sources close to the government, when the commission in a January meeting recommended reforms that would allow farmers to sell more grain at free market prices, Mengistu said no.

One member of the commission, according to these sources, argued with Mengistu during the meeting, trying to to explain the economic benefits of the reform. That official, Kebede Abebe, then minister of domestic trade, is now an ambassador at large, a kind of benign exile.

It is a Sunday night in Jimma, a small city in southwest Ethiopia. A traveling dance troupe is on stage in the town hall. To the pounding of a drum and the eerie metallic wail of a masanko, a kind of Ethiopian violin, 12 young women perform the traditional movements of a Tigrayan love dance. In white gowns trimmed with gold and red embroidery, they are fluttering their shoulders, shaking their breasts and thrusting their hips in and out.

What makes this lubricious dance so weirdly incongruous is the stage scenery. Behind and above the sweating, undulating women loom large paintings of taciturn, bewhiskered white men in 19th-century business suits: Marx, Engels and Lenin.

The Marx brothers, as they are acidly known here, are everywhere in Ethiopia. Full-color billboard paintings of them reign above Revolution Square in Addis Ababa. Less garish likenesses adorn dirt-road hamlets across the country. Almost everyday the government-controlled press carries turgid essays on Lenin's humanitarianism or the Soviet Union's longtime fascination with Ethiopian culture.

Like the jarring juxtaposition of nubile Ethiopian fertility dancers and bearded old communists in Jimma's town hall, the imposition here of Marxist philosophy in an ancient African kingdom seems odd and artificial. Scores of Ethiopians, including several government employes interviewed across Ethiopia, say privately that they resent their government's obeisance to the ideology of the Soviet Union.

"A philosophy is not like a Toyota car. You cannot import it and drive it in the streets. " Said one Ethiopian, echoing many others. "Ethiopia's people feel they are being colonized by the Russians. We have never been colonized by anyone."

Ethiopia is unlike any other country in Africa. It became a Christian kingdom about 1,400 years before missionaries showed up on the continent. In the 19th century, it managed to play colonial powers against each other, sidestepping the domination of any of the European countries that carved up Africa. Ethiopians are fiercely proud of their difference from the rest of Africa, slipping into casual conversation references to Menelik II and his defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1896.

Yet there is no tradition in Ethiopia of democratic or even quasi-democratic rule. Kings, emperors and feudal landowners have always called the shots in Ethiopia. National leadership, when it exists, is by custom a corrupt one-man show. "There is no tradition of negotiation in this country," says a senior United Nations official who has lived here for five years. "The top tells the bottom what to do. And the bottom, out of fear, does it."

The consensus among diplomats in Addis Ababa is that Mengistu, despite the trappings of a Communist Party and Politboro, represents a continuation of the tradition of one-man, absolute rule. For more than a decade, the 44-year-old career military man has consolidated power as competing revolutionary leaders were demoted, exiled or shot. Mengistu's one-man show, however, is in constant danger of being canceled by rebels in the north and Somalis in the south.

Diplomats here say the Soviet Union earned a place in Mengistu's heart -- along with the influence that explains the ubiquitousness of the Marx Brothers -- when it helped Ethiopia turn back an invasion in the south by Somalia in 1977-78. Soviet weaponry continues to be a key element in controlling rebels in the north.

Rebels in Eritrea, who want their own independent state, have been fighting the central government for more than 20 years. Rebels in Tigray, who cannot say exactly what they want, have been fighting for more than a decade. The rebels are not winning, but they are not losing. And famine relief in the north always must give way to the fighting.

The famine camp at Korem, for instance, is near an area controlled by rebels of the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Although the camp is one of the largest in Ethiopia, with as many as 50,000 people, relief officials say the government does not permit stockpiling of food there.

"You will never, ever, get large stocks of food there." Says a U.N. relief official. "The government fears that Korem will be surrounded and the food will be taken away to feed rebels."

In January and February of this year, the government stopped relief workers from Doctors Without Borders, the French voluntary organization, from distributing blankets in Korem. At the time, as people were dying of exposure to the highland cold, there were nearly 20,000 blankets in warehouses at Korem, according to a relief official who was there at the time. He said that the government told him that it did not want famine victims to get too comfortable. It wanted them, instead, to volunteer for resettlement in the south where rebels are not a threat, he said.

Making peasants suffer, however, is not the exclusive province of the Ethiopian army. Rebels, who control most of Eritrea and Tigray, routinely blow up water projects contructed by international relief workers. They interfere with many development projects seen as likely to endear local people to the government.

"This is a helluva bloody war on both sides," says Alan Court, a senior official for UNICEF in Ethiopia. "Neither side confines itself to military targets. There will never be any development in disputed areas until the conflict is resolved."

While about 60 percent of the food shipped to Ethiopia sits undistributed at the ports, while the northern war keeps food from hundreds of thousands of famine victims, the United States and the Soviet Union (with Ethiopia as its surrogate) have settled into a game of famine one-upmanship.

Superpower rivalry has not prevented the U.S. government from feeding millions of hungry Ethiopians. And a recent easing in Washington of legal restrictions on the use of U.S. food and money for development assistance was warmly welcomed by the government here. But suspicion remains, along with almost daily mutual accusations of bad faith.

The United States, the largest donor of famine aid, has succeeeded in pressuring other Western donor nations not to support the government's resettlement program, which is desperately short of money for seed, plow oxen and medicine. Many resettlers were moved by Soviet planes and trucks in a program that the U.S. argues is oorly planned and not voluntary -- as Ethiopia maintains.

The cost of U.S. non-support for the program, according to Kenneth King, head of the U.N.'s development program here, is being borne by the 360,000 Ethiopians who have been resettled.

"These people will have a crummier life compared to to what could have been had resettlement not been politicized," King said.

The Ethiopian regime repays the United States by teaching school children (according to the children themselves) that the Soviet Union and East Germany, which together give little food, are Ethiopia's major famine-relief donors.

The United States tugs back at the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people with a much-listened-to Amharic language Voice of America radio program. The nightly program lauds American generosity in Ethiopia while giving extensive play to the Marxist regime's foul-ups, such as the burning and forced evacuation of Ibnet, once the country's largest feeding camp.

The rains have come to Ethiopia this year. If seeds, oxen and handtools can be rounded up in sufficient numbers within the next month or so, there likely will be no pictures on television next year of starving Ethiopian babies.

But rebel war is unlikely to go away, and, therefore, rehabilitation of the famine-prone north is almost impossible. Mengistu, the fearsome, strong-willed military boss who has been pushed by war into the arms of the Soviet Union, will not accept farm reforms that could provide a famine buffer in lean years. Relief officials fear news about Ethiopian misery is beginning to bore the affluent world.

Asked to predict the country's future, an American diplomat who has watched Ethiopia for four years would say only:

"This country has an infinite capacity for suffering."