COVERING BOTH SIDES of a civil war, a reporter is always in a twilight zone. But Angola is a special case of schizophrenia.

After months of alarms by anti-communist rebel forces -- and months of denial by Angola's Marxist government -- the great dry season offensive of 1987 is underway. Depending on how you look at it and whom you talk to, two radically different pictures of the contending forces emerge.

On one side is the Marxist government in the capital of Luanda -- either a radical, unstable pawn in the clutches of Cuba and the Soviet Union, or a latently moderate government struggling to come to terms with western ideology while beleaguered by a debilitating war underwritten as part of the East-West conflict.

On the other side, there is anti-communist rebel leader Jonas Savimbi -- either an opportunistic and ruthless head of a personality cult who is strangling Angola's economy out of unbridled personal ambition and blood lust, or a visionary champion of democracy and the key to peace and stability in southern Africa.

Who is right in Angola? I have covered both sides of civil wars in Asia, the Middle East and Africa without being nearly as confused about the merits of each side's cause. Back-to-back trips within the last month to government-controlled Luanda and to the southeastern corner of Angola -- controlled for 10 years by the rebels -- confounded as much as enlightened.

I take some comfort in my confusion from the fact that U.S. foreign policy is just as ambivalent. The Reagan administration increasingly makes friendly overtures to the Marxist government in Luanda -- and U.S.-owned oil companies continue to provide its major source of hard currency -- while the administration continues secretly to supply weapons to the Savimbi-led insurgents seeking to overthrow that same government. Why, if the universally recognized government is salvageable as a potential ally of the West, do we continue to contribute to its possible demise?

Questions posed to both Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, head of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and Savimbi, head of the rebel Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), produced more contradictions than clarifications.

Interviews with local military commanders on both sides yielded bombastic predictions of spectacular battlefield victories that are to come, but no definitive answer to the question of whether a military solution is possible in Angola.

Meetings on both sides of the front lines with prisoners-of-war and combat victims, evoked claims of horrific atrocities, but little conclusive evidence that the war is being conducted any more savagely than most.

The current government offensive is said to have been directed by a high-ranking Soviet general and backed by 37,000 Cuban troops. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that the Soviet Union has supplied $1 billion in arms for the offensive. But dos Santos and his senior counselors blandly maintain that a limited number of volunteer Cuban and Soviet technicians are helping Angola run its schools and hospitals as part of their "progressive international duty," but have not been directly involved in combat since 1979. They admitted that some Cuban troops are protecting strategic towns and cities, but said that Angola is fighting its own war against UNITA and the South African Army and does not need foreign help.

For their part, Savimbi and his aides claim that Angola is under virtual Cuban and Soviet occupation, and that the government has effectively traded one colonial master -- the Portuguese -- for two more. It is a Russian and Cuban war against patriotic Angolans, and nothing else, Savimbi and his supporters say. And they deny British press reports that South African fighter-bombers have played a key role in repulsing the government offensive earlier this month.

The truth, as often is the case, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

In Lubango, in south central Angola, I saw Cuban and Soviet pilots climb into heavily-armed MIG-23 fighters and go thundering off the runway in the direction of UNITA-controlled territory to the southeast on missions that appeared to have little to do with helping run hospitals and schools.

In Mavinga, in the heart of Savimbi's rebel enclave, I saw similar MIG-23s languorously orbiting overhead, apparently looking for the tell-tale clouds of dust churned up by truck convoys headed to the front.

A few miles east of the front at Cuito Cuanavale, I shared a bunker with UNITA field commanders while batteries of Soviet-supplied artillery laid down what appeared to be softening barrages in preparation for some kind of offensive action.

Whether the Angolan Army and UNITA are headed toward a decisive confrontation is still unclear. But last month's battle outside Mavinga was undoubtedly the largest clash in the last two years and the current fighting could send the violent, 10-year struggle for control of Angola into an upward spiral.

Meanwhile the propaganda war continues. In Luanda, visitors are relentlessly reminded by the Department of Information and Propaganda that artificial limbs comprise one of the country's biggest growth industries. UNITA guerrillas routinely bury anti-personnel mines in farm fields just before harvest time, mutilating hundreds of peasant women and children when they go to pick the crops, government officials say. Similarly, pathways used only by civilians are heavily mined by UNITA rebels to spread terror and convince the local population that the Angolan government is incapable of protecting them, they add.

But there are also factories that produce artificial limbs in the bush headquarters town of Jamba, and UNITA public-relations officers make a point of taking visitors to special hospitals for amputees (mutalados) who have stepped on MPLA mines.

The issue of mutalados is an emotional one on both sides, and frequently the truth is obscured by hyperbole.

Some independent relief workers for foreign agencies maintain that in a war in which a main objective of each side is to disrupt the other's lines of supply and road transport capability, a high rate of civilian casualties by land mines is inevitable. But officials in Luanda vigorously deny using anti-personnel mines in civilian areas. They say that it is not part of the MPLA strategy to intimidate local populations, but that such tactics are part of the guerrilla textbook.

When asked about this charge, Savimbi responded that the MPLA forces regularly round up rural peasants suspected of producing food for UNITA and force them to live in towns where they can be watched. To confine the peasants, he said, the MPLA erects barbed-wire fences and plants land mines, which are frequently detonated when the internees go foraging for food.

But Savimbi admitted that when his guerrillas attack an MPLA garrison, they often lay land mines behind them as they retreat. "It's possible that the local population would step on them, so in February I issued an order to my commanders -- when there is a local civilian population in the area, no anti-personnel mines. But I share the blame," Savimbi said.

On both sides of the civil war, other stories of atrocities are more abundant than hard corroborating evidence.

Both MPLA soldiers and UNITA guerrillas say that they expect to be tortured to death if taken captive by the enemy. But when either side produces prisoners to visiting journalists for interviews, as they frequently do, the POWs invariably say that they have been treated well, and that it is their own side that engages in brutality.

Allegations of the use of chemical and biological weapons are bandied about freely, but no one has produced corroborating evidence of such practices.

Nowhere is contradiction and obfuscation more pronounced that in the interminable debate over the right to rule Angola. Perceptions blur in the haze of skewed rhetoric and disingenous logic. In Luanda, Savimbi is seen as nothing more than a reactionary puppet of the United States and South Africa and a machiavellian upstart. Having lost his bid to reign supreme in the short-lived MPLA-dominated coalition government that followed independence in 1975, Savimbi, according to this view, led his sulking followers to a bush hideout in the southeastern corner of Angola. From this vantage point they have sowed relentless terror in hopes of crippling the country's economy and bringing dos Santos' Marxist government to its knees.

In fact, the 53-year-old Savimbi is more complicated than that, and he remains an enigma even to many of his admirers. His ideological record is that of a fervent anti-capitalist whose mentors during Angola's revolutionary struggle were Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara, Joshua Nkrumah and Gamal Abdul Nasser. In 1965, he led 12 disciples to China for study of guerrilla warfare under the tutelage of then Prime Minister Chou en Lai. While Savimbi himself is widely perceived as a moderate, free-market, pro-American leader, his party is based on socialist principles and the black exclusivity he calls "negritude."

But, despite his party's anti-capitalist bent, on almost every wall of every building in UNITA's bush headquarters in Jamba there are color photographs of Savimbi meeting President Reagan in the Oval Office last year and Savimbi chatting with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz. Strains of the "Yankee Doodle Dandy" introduction to the Voice of America's nightly Portuguese-language newscast fill the UNITA barracks, and school children greet a visiting American with chants of "Presidente Reagan! Presidente Reagan!"

Yet the visitor is struck by the seeming softness of Savimbi's attachment to the United States. How much of it is based on cool pragmatism? How quickly would it evaporate if Washington were to cut off its yearly $15 million worth of covert military aid -- including vital Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles?

Savimbi himself inadvertently fueled those suspicions when he recalled in an interview how UNITA last year attacked the runway at the airport at Cabinda, where U.S.-run offshore oil facilities are located. "If it were not for the support of the U. S. government, today UNITA would be in a position to hit Gulf Oil in Cabinda," Savimbi said, referring to the oil fields now owned by Chevron Corp.

Savimbi's pragmatism also extends to South Africa, which financially supports UNITA and has repeatedly intervened in the nick of time when MPLA forces have gotten the upper hand in engagements. Savimbi, who occasionally travels to South Africa to make public appearances, is fond of saying, "You can choose your friends but you can't choose your neighbors," and observing that white-ruled South Africa is a regional power to stay.

If Luanda's perceptions of Savimbi and his rebel movement are too simplistic, the same could be said of the view from Jamba of dos Santos' struggling government. Far from being the monolithic vassal of the Soviet Union that Savimbi sees, the People's Republic of Angola is headed by a government that has become increasingly ambivalent towards Moscow's socialist model for the Third World, steadily turning toward a more mixed economy and a less rigid structure of central planning and administration.

The government is considering joining the International Monetary Fund; it hosted the "summit" of nonaligned nations in 1985; it is increasingly expressing interest in western investment; and 90 percent of its imports come from free-market-oriented countries, including the United States.

Angola has steadily decollectivized its farms and denationalized its industries. It joined the Lome' Accord giving third-world countries access to European Economic Community trade and aid benefits and allowed the EEC to establish an office in Luanda. In an interview, the newly independent country's first prime minister, Lopo Fortunato Nascimento, now commissar for Hula Province, summed up the government's changing attitudes: "Socialism is not a bible . . . . We are strong enough to say that we have made mistakes here and there."

Despite the changing character of the country's social and economic structure -- and its tentative groping for closer ties to the West -- the MPLA government remains in the eyes of its antagonists in this long and brutal civil war nothing more or less than a extension of Soviet adventurism in Africa. And despite the complexities of Savimbi and his movement, UNITA remains in the eyes of the leaders in Luanda nothing more or less than a reactionary tool of the United States and South Africa.

In this climate of misperceptions and intractability on both sides, the only certainty is that opportunities for a negotiated settlement of the civil war will continue to slip away, and the agony of an abundantly rich, beautiful country will endure.

William Claiborne is an Africa correspondent for The Washington Post based in Africa.