LILONGWE, MALAWI -- Perhaps more than anything else I'll always remember the night marches.

That was when we usually moved. It wasn't so bad when there was a full moon; at least you could make out the shapes of trees and rocks. But when it was pitch dark, the African bush was a very frightening place.

The worst was crossing the swamp in the dead of night. We had to wade waist-deep through thick, putrid mud that smelled like wet manure. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed around our heads; if you slapped your neck, you came up with a handful of dead insects.

I couldn't see one inch in front of me, and I was afraid of slipping and falling under the ooze. When we finally got out, one of the soldiers found that a two-inch-long leech had fastened onto his leg. It took a long time to remove because its head already was buried in his skin.

Until we were freed last Tuesday, six fellow missionaries and I spent three months marching across Mozambique after we were taken captive by guerrilla forces of Renamo {the Mozambique National Resistance, a rebel group seeking to overthrow the Marxist government}. As the crow flies, we traveled about 200 miles; but we might easily have gone twice that distance considering the circuitous route. We walked across bush, jungle and forest; up and down mountains and across rivers. We slept in the wild and were fed maize meal and the meat of assorted wild animals until we were released over the border into Malawi last Tuesday. We suffered from hunger, malaria and dysentery. At no time were we maltreated by the Renamo soldiers.

It was hardly what I'd expected when I volunteered for Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an international missionary organization based in Hawaii. I was employed as a nurse in a Houston pediatric hospital but wanted to work in public health in a Third World country with a Christian group. I wanted to experience a difficult place and I knew that Mozambique would be very difficult.

I had planned to work in a hospital in the coastal city of Beira. But then I met Roy and Patricia Perkins, missionaries who run a farm and clinic in Maforga, about 50 miles from the Zimbabwe border. They look after the 1,500-acre farm for a German baroness and provide medical care for nearby villagers. Since they had only a part-time nurse, we decided that I should work at the farm instead. I arrived on May 9, a Saturday. The other nurse, Joan Goodwin, was there and we began work on Monday morning. That day, Philip and Victoria Cooper and their 19-month-old daughter Abigail showed up for a four-day visit; they live in a Christian community nearby and work closely with the Perkinses.

The farm is located near a base camp for Zimbabwean soldiers. {This force, in Mozambique with the permission of the government, guards the vital oil and rail lines into Zimbabwe.} Thus we heard almost constant gunfire. The Renamo guerrillas were no strangers to the area: Last year they broke in and ransacked the house; and a couple of days before I arrived they tore off a security door and blew up the baroness' car.

Still, I wasn't afraid. Roy and Patricia struck me as people of common sense who wouldn't stay in a very dangerous area.

So Wednesday night, May 13, I went to bed early after writing a couple of letters to my mother and a friend. Around 1 in the morning, Phil came in and said, "Kindra, get out of bed, the house is surrounded." I realized immediately what was happening and slipped on a pair of warmups and canvas shoes. The Coopers and I ran into a bathroom, locked the door and started to pray. Abigail the baby was very quiet. You could hear the soldiers smashing in the windows and talking to one another in Portuguese. I was convinced I was going to die. As a Christian I could accept death, but I was terrified of being tortured. The soldiers kept coming closer and closer. Then we heard Roy say, "Come on out."

I came out with my hands up -- a flashlight in one and a backpack I had grabbed in the other. There were about 60 soldiers, all talking. They made us sit down on the lawn while they pilfered the house. Roy and Trish speak a passable version of Portuguese, and Trish asked the soldier to let the Cooper family go. But they refused. Then they made us start walking.

The moon was out and the weather was mild. I kept wondering if they were going to kill us immediately, or torture us first. The soldiers insisted on walking behind us, and I had this awful feeling they were going to shoot us in the back. I would have preferred them in front; at least I could have seen them take aim.

When we got to the road, Roy explained that we had to be very quiet because we were passing near the Zimbabwe base camp. We were terrified that Abby would start crying. Vicky breast-fed her as we walked along. After a while my fear of dying turned to anger. This was ruining all my plans. I also was mad about my zoom lens. I'd just bought a new one for my camera and a Renamo guerrilla had stolen it.

We walked from 1:30 in the morning until about 10:30. I let Joan wear my shoes for a while; she had fled barefoot. At daylight they gave us some water. We all were terribly dehydrated but scared that it might give us dysentery, so we prayed it wouldn't make us sick and drank. We were too exhausted to eat. We finally made it to a central camp at 3:30. All the villagers were coming up to us, smiling, shaking our hands. I kept thinking -- Don't these people understand that we're prisoners?

The camp was a bunch of grass huts and about 60 ragtag soldiers. Most didn't have shoes, just tattered T-shirts, shorts and guns. The commander had the items stolen from the house displayed in front of him; he told us we could reclaim anything we needed. I figured we were going to be there only a few days so I took a couple of dresses and T-shirts and a pair of tennis shoes. I got my camera and zoom lens back.

We spent two days in that camp, then were marched off to another. That was the pattern for the first month. We were in some six different camps, and had names for them all: the river camp, jungle camp, mountain camp, helicopter camp. It was infuriating and seemed senseless, but the soldiers explained that we were going to meet the Renamo president, Alfonso Dhlakama, after which we would be released. We always traveled at night: Walk and walk until you started to hallucinate. Sometimes, we'd see a little fire twinkling in the distance and get all excited, thinking it was the camp. It usually turned out to be the smoldering logs of some sleeping village.

When we got to a camp, there always was a grass hut with a straw bed. Or if we were out in the bush when the sun rose, we would find a camouflaged area, roll out a mat and go to sleep. One morning I left my mat and returned a few minutes later to see a large snake slithering over it. Back in Houston, I used to scream when I saw a spider. Now I just lay down and went back to sleep.

We had no toothpaste or toothrushes and I went three months without cleaning my teeth. We tried to use a root, the traditional African remedy, but it wasn't the same. We had soap but ran out of shampoo, so I didn't wash my hair for two months. I figured if I had filthy teeth, what did it matter?

We ate whatever the soldiers could kill -- Cape buffalo, wildebeest, hippopotamus, sable antelope, elephant. The meat was usually at least a week old and you could smell it long before you could see it. One of our favorite jokes was that once we were served elephant tripe with herbs: the elephant's stomach still had its contacts intact. Occasionally we would come across bananas or wild greens; and cassava root was a great treat. We tried to hoard as much produce as possible for the baby, and the soldiers gave her their food first. There was plenty of maize meal -- a tasteless gloppy porridge -- but it had little nutritional value and never filled you up. We spent a lot of time talking about food. Vicky craved chocolate, I dreamt of Chinese food.

We all had dysentery and got worms in our feet. Little bugs bored holes in our soles and laid eggs, which then hatched into worms. We had to pick them out with pins. Everyone except Abby, Phil and Joan got malaria. A horrible headache, fever and chills, incredible chills. All I could do was lie on my hard mat and stare up at the thatched ceiling. We had medicine, and I was all right after a few days. Then the soldiers made us march again. I was very angry because I was so weak, and I prayed a lot to God to give me strength.

From the beginning, the soldiers wanted us to understand their cause. They claimed that the Marxist government, known as Frelimo, had ruined Mozambique. Their policy of blowing up vehicles, schools and other installations was a way of paralyzing Frelimo. They denied reports linking them with massacres and mutilations, calling it a Frelimo set-up. They took us, they said, for fear Frelimo would kill us and then try to blame them.

I don't think I believed that, but I do know they were very gentle with us. They never threatened or shoved us with their guns. We had our own little staff of six people to cook and carry our belongings. The soldiers seemed disciplined and well organized and appeared to have a good relationship with villagers, who in turn seemed to recognize them as the government.

The soldiers could get themselves all pumped up talking about their cause, but I got the feeling they were tired. There was a real sadness about them, a weariness. Many had been in the bush for eight or nine years without seeing their wives or children. (They were crazy about Abby, and toward the end, when Phil got too weak, they carried her on their backs.)

After the first month, they took us to a camp high up in the Gorongoza mountains. The climb was incredible; at times it took us an hour to move 20 feet. The camp was in the midst of a beautiful tropical forest with monkeys and exotic birds and flowers. We were there five weeks, a time of tremendous peace and contentment for me. I would go to the clearing and think and pray.

For the last two weeks, Renamo's minister for internal affairs -- fluent in English and sharp as a tack -- was there to give us the political spiel. We didn't need it. It was he who told us we were going to be allowed to walk out of Mozambique. I was excited about leaving, but also sad. That little green hut had become home and I dreaded walking again.

We had an escort of 70 soldiers on the two-week-long march, and they made us keep a brutal pace. Joan, 57, sick and in pain, had to be carried on a litter, as did Vicky. I had heat stroke and was carried for a few hours, but then I started walking again because I felt sorry for the soldiers. Phil lost about 40 pounds and had awful raw blisters on his feet after his shoes disintegrated.

Though our ordeal was coming to an end, I didn't want to get my hopes up. First we had to cross the Zambezi River by dugout, then a portion of the Chire River. But we reached a large camp last Monday. The next day we'd be over the border. I was elated. I took a long, beautiful bath. Members of a private U.S. organization who were to escort us out had brought toothpaste, and brushing my teeth after three months was an indescribable sensation, as was shampooing my hair. I also listened to a cassette from my mother, which made me cry.

I couldn't sleep that night for excitement. I thought it would be hard to say goodbye to the soldiers, but it wasn't so bad. We left them our blankets and clothes we didn't need. Then we packed up and crossed the river. In Malawi we were met by members of the U.S. embassy. We all cried a little.

I asked myself what God wanted me to learn from this experience, and I'm not yet completely certain. I know that it was a privilege to see the African bush and the incredible beauty that He created. I know that I gained tremendous insight into my relationship with Him. I also think I'm able to understand the suffering of the Mozambican people. I've seen their hurt and their pain, how tired they are of war. It's not for Renamo or Frelimo that this war should end. It's for the people.

Kindra Bryan, 27, was assisted in the preparation of this article by an American journalist.