The stench choked me as the wind shifted suddenly, carrying the smell of dead cattle to the eastern edge of this burnt and deserted village.

Chief Jacinto Seven guided me and an escort of 50 guerrillas past the 45 dead cows. Several small, mangy dogs scampered away from the decaying, partially eaten carcasses as we passed by.

A short distance away, Chief Seven pointed to the scattered bones of a leper sticking up from the red mud - symbols of the savage, fratricidal civil war that has torn the southern half of this newly independent African nation for the past two years.

"He and the other lepers were too weak to run when the government soldiers came here," said Seven, chief of the now-deserted village of 300 peasants.

"The soldiers burned him and another leper alive," Seven continued unemotionally while pointing to the dead man's jawbone, a thighbone and a forearm lying among the fast-growing weeds in front of the dead man's fire-blackened house.

That was all that was left of the skeleton. Dogs and other small, carnivorous animals had gorged themselves on the diseased flesh, gnawed the edges of the remaining bones and carried the rest off into the surrounding forest.

"The soldiers threw another man down a well and shot the other nine," Seven said. "It was the fifth time they had come here, but the first time they had done this. They were angry because we support the guerrillas."

The guerrillas, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), have been fighting a fierce, protracted war against the Soviet- and Cuban-supported government of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. The Movement won a three-sided conflict against UNITA and another rival, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, during the early stages of the war.

The Angolan government is supported by some 15,000 Cuban soldiers, Katangan gendarmes and the guerrillas of the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). The guerrillas claim they have also fought against Nigerian regular soldiers who, according to newspaper accounts earlier this year, were in Angola at "battalion strength," but the guerrillas could offer me no proof.

Today, the UNITA guerrillas are better armed and organized and occupy better strategic locations than when they fought the 69,000-man Portuguese colonial army from 1966 to 1974. They have also grown considerably, from a claimed high of 3,000 guerrillas in 1974 up to 23,000 today, according to their commander general, Samuel Chiwale.

From the intensive look that I got at UNITA's operations. Chiwale's claim of 23,000 guerrillas seemed credible.

Thw UNITA guerrillas were also given some tactical training by 20 French mercenaries flown into Angola in mid-January 1976 on a six-month Central Intelligence Agency contract. The 20 men did not serve out their contract and left Angola through Namibia in mid-March, according to an authoritative Western intelligence source.

On my previous visit to the UNITA insurgents in 1973, they were limited to the sparsely populated and economically unimportant regions east of the Cuanza River, which flows north through the center of southern Angola.

The UNITA guerrillas now occupy Angola's most heavily populated and economically essential central plateau, west of the Cuanza River, both north and south of the Benguela railroad. The train's iron rails run 840 miles, from the Atlantic east to the Zaire border. The Benguela railroad divides Angola into its northern and southern regions.

Since their retreat from the cities just ahead of the Cuban forces in February and March of last year, the UNITA guerrillas have been fighting from the Benguela railroad south to Angola's border with Namibia - a region of approximately 240,000 square miles. They have followed strictly the Maoist tenents of guerrilla warfare taught to the first 11 UTITA rebels trained in Peking in 1965. They are:

Engage government troops only when you have massed twice their number of soldiers or more, to kill as many as possible and demoralize the army by never giving them a victory.

Destroy all means of communications, make road transportation unsafe with numerous ambushes and destroy all railroads.

Sabotage the economy and create psychological instability among the civilian population that supports the government through acts of urban terrorism.

Disperse when attacked by large government forces, causing frustrated government soldiers to retaliate against the civilian population and, thereby cementing the ties between peasant supporter and guerrilla.

I saw how effectively the UNITA guerrillas have been able to cut road transportation when, in March, I went with them on an ambush on the asphalt road running through central Angola south from Bie (formerly Silva Porto) to Serpa Pinto.

With 60 guerrillas - 12 men for each vehicle of a five-truck convoy that they said usually traveled the road - strung out along the road I waited for eight days and eight nights just above the town of Cachingues. But nothing moved all week - this in a country whose few asphalt roads were used incessantly before the civil war.

Angola's central region, where the UNITA guerrillas operate, is the country's breadbasket. Before the civil war, it produced wheat, corn, rice and beans for the entire country. The guerrillas' ambushes and the destruction of the Benguela railroad have effectively cut the transportation of grain. There are food shortages throughout Angola, including Luanda, the capital.

Hindered in its efforts to unify this divided country by the activities of the UNITA forces, the Popular Movement government carried out a massive seven-month offensive against them from May to November last year. I was there during part of the offensive, which had little apparent effect.

"They bombed and strafed us with their Russian bombers and jet Migs," said UNITA's guerrilla leader, Jonas Malheiro Savibi," but we just dispersed or moved our bases to another area of the forest. I love this forest. Without it, things would be very difficult for us.

"The Cubans and Russians don't know how to fight an anti-guerrilla war," Savimbi chuckled. "The bigger the [military] machine, the easier it is to escape. They should use smaller groups, but they don't have the morale. The Cubans will not accept 20 of their men to be dropped here in the bush [on a search and destroy mission]. The [Popular Movement] soldiers are too poorly trained to do it.

"When they come with [Soviet T-34 and T-54] tanks, it is true, we will run away," Savimbi continued. "But we will return when they have passed. They've just wasted patrol."

The offensive, according to Savimbi, was conducted in four stages beginning with Operation Tigre in eastern Angola, followed by Operation Cacuenha in the south and ending simultaneously with Operation Huambo in the center and Operation Vakulakuta in Angola's border area with Namibia.

The highest number of casualties, the guerrillas said, were suffered by unarmed civilians, who, if even suspected of aiding the guerrillas with food or information about troop movements, were slaughtered when their villages were attacked.

The guerrillas admit killing unarmed civilians, too but sometimes callously.

Lt. Col. Mario Chilulu Cheya is a guerrilla officer whose base was built a year ago close to the government-occupied town of Chitembo, in Bie Provience.

"I had to attack Chitembo several times before the peasants would have [the town] and live with us in the early December. "But then some of them went back to the town."

When the peasants would leave Chitembo to cultivate their corn fields "we would attack them and kill some of them," said Cheya. The purpose of the attacks was to keep the peasants who supported the government from taking food to the soldiers in Chitembo.

Finally, after the government offensive in his area last October, Cheya said he massed a large number of guerrillas from several bases and attacked Chitembo for the seventh time, killing everyone caught in the line of fire, civilians and soldiers alike. "The people then left Chitembo because they no longer felt safe. They have now moved into the bush with us," he added casually.

There are no frontiers or battle lines in this war. The guerrillas attack wherever government troops are concentrated. When the guerrillas are attacked in their forest bases they quickly run into the bush and regroup later to build another base in a new location.

Since the government's offensive last fall, the Cubans have retired from the towns of the southern Angolan countryside to the region's major cities: Huambo (formerly Nova Lisboa). Bie (formerly Silva Porto), Luso, Serpa Pinto and Sa da Bandeira.

"We have killed a thousand Cubans since February '76," said UNITA commander general Chiwale. "That is why they don't leave the cities. Two many of them were dying."

The withdrawal of the Cuban soldiers, however, has led to harsher retaliatory measures against UNITA's civilian supporters from Popular Movement troops and their allies, SWAPO, according to guerrilla leader Savimbi.

"There is a difference between the Cubans, government soldiers and the SWAPO," continued Savimbi. "The Cubans are not so savage and will usually not kill our supporters. The government soldiers are more savage and the SWAPOs are the most savage," he said.

SWAPO, which allied itself with the Popular Movement government last year after UNITA collaborated with the South Africans, "would have been wiser if they did not attack us and just had a political alliance with the government. We would not have bothered them."

"Now, we will never let them operate against the South Africans in Namibia again," said UNITA's Savimba heatedly in a rare display of anger. "Never! Not unless we are defeated." SWAPO guerrillas, who formerly had good relations with the UNITA guerrillas, use southern Angola as a refuge in between attacks on South African forces in neighboring Namibia.

The remnants of Kavango village, with its small leper colony, is one example of many of the rising enmity on all sides of Angola's civil war. I reached Kavango, in the northeastern corner of Huila Province a short distance east of the Cubango River, last Dec. 14.

In 1950, American Baptist missionaries came to Kavango and founded a small leper colony, built a hospital, a church and an elementary school.

A wide dirt road separates the leper colony from the main village and mission station. The small, red brick houses of the lepers were all gutted by fire. At the main village, the thatch-roofed mud huts of the peasants were also burned.

The research and treatment wing of the white-walled hospital was smoke-blackened and littered with the charred remains of medical texts on the treatment of leprosy and other debilitating tropical diseases. The homes of the one missionary and one doctor had been ransacked. Even the stuffing of their couches and beds was ripped out and strewn about the rooms.

The minister, the Rev. Darrel Hockersmith, and the physician, Dr. Robert L. Foster, "left the day after they heard the Cubans had taken Huambo on Feb. 8th" last year, said Elibeu Herculano, a male nurse who had worked at the hospital.

Huambo, Angola's second-largest city, is about 130 miles northwest of Kavango. "The Cubans arrived here first on March 2," added Chief Seven. "At first there was no trouble. They only killed one Portuguese man who was here because they said he was a UNITA supporter."

A month later Popular Movement soldiers came to Kavango for the first time and "there was no trouble," said Seven. Then in May of last year Cuban and Popular Movement troops returned together and called all the villagers to a meeting in front of the hospital.

Chief Seven dated the beginning in the deterioration of his villagers' relationship with the Popular Movement government from that May meeting.

"They told us UNITA was finished and Savimbi was dead with his legs cut off," Seven remembered. "No, we didn't believe them because there were UNITA guerrillas there in the crowd listening to them."

While they were listening to the speeches, Seven said, Popular Movement soldiers were going through their houses taking blankets, radios, salt and money. "They said theirs was the only real liberation movement, but they were thieves."

In June, the soldiers returned again and burned a UNITA car that had run out of gasoline and took all the clothes and blankets from the hospital, Seven said. Soon afterward, most of the people in the village moved into the forest "because we heard that some people in another village were shot and we thought they would return and shoot us," Seven said.

On Oct. 22, during the government's offensive, the Popular Movement soldiers returned to Kavango without the Cubans. "I had returned to the village to weed my corn," said Seven. "It was about noon and I heard the shooting begin around the hospital, I ran away back to the forest immediately."

There were eight wounded guerrillas recuperating at the hospital when the Popular Movement soldiers attacked, said nurse Herculano. "All of them managed to escape because the troops began firing and making a lot of noise before they reached the hospital. Only the lepers were caught. They were too weak to run."

The Popular Movement soldiers "were very angry," said Seven. "They knew the UNITA guerrillas had been using the hospital. That's why they killed the lepers."

Running away into the thousands of miles of forest and thick bush of southern Angola is the standard defense of both guerrillas and their peasant supporters when attacked.But the endless woodlands also afford a useful cover for government soldiers seeking guerrilla bases.

Three weeks earlier, during the march to Kavango, I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 27 by the sounds of explosions and small arms fire. I had spent the night in a small guerrilla base, what the UNITA insurgents call a "control base" to intercept government troop movements, in southern Bie Province.

My escort of 100-odd guerrillas and their officer, Maj. Mateus Katalayo, were also awakened by the sounds of fighting. "I don't know who is attacking who," said Katalayo.

Four hours later, while tramping through a wide stretch of marshland, we met a UNITA guerrilla heading south. He told us that Popular Movement soldiers had attacked a UNITA base six miles west of use earlier that morning. The soldiers sorrounded the base on these sides and opened the attack with shoulder-fired Soviet rockets.

The guerrillas' sentries did not hear the soldiers because they had slipped up to the edge of the camp the night before, during a violent rainstorm. "They must have had a peasant supporter of theirs guide them to the base," speculated Katalayo after talking to the guerrilla.

"This war is more complicated than the war against the Portuguese. The Portuguese didn't know the bush and the Cubans don't know the bush," he continued, "but in the villages you have both UNITA and government supporters."

The government's peasant supporters, Katalayo said, can lead government troops right up to UNITA's bases. "The peasants know the bush as well as we do."

The fighting sometimes takes on a tit-for-tat quality. Maj. Jose Kanjundo said he ambushed a column of soldiers moving south in trucks from the Benguela railroad town of General Machado to the town of Ringoma on Nov. 22.

"There were five trucks in the folumn and we killed 30 men," said Kanjundo, pointing out that his guerrillas bivouac 12 men per vehicle when conducting a road ambush.

"In retaliation," he said, "the government soldiers attacked one of our villages and killed 40 peasants the next day."

Both to avenge the slaying of the villagers and to rid his area of the government soldiers, Maj. Kanjundo attacked the town of Ringoma on the morning of Dec. 13. "I also wanted to teach the soba [chief] at Ringoma a lesson," Kanjundo added.

"The soba had been a UNITA supporter but changed sides when the government troops came to Ringoma in October during the offensive," Kanjundo said.

With 300 guerrillas against 90 Popular Movement soldiers who were training 120 cadets, Kanjundo said they attacked Ringoma from its eastern and southern edges."Our guerrillas on the south side opened fire first, but after two hours began to run out of ammunition. When the government troops began to advance on them, our eastern side operated up and we were able to overrun the town," he said.

Kanjundo was wounded in the left leg during the attack and was still recuperating at a forest base when I interviewed him in early January. He said his men killed 30 civilians and 51 Popular Movement soldiers in that attack. "We suffered one dead and two wounded and took 26 civilians.

George Chikoti, an enthusiastic guerrilla private, said the 5 a.m. attack on Ringoma had its funny moments. "There was a Popular Movement officer who thought we were not serious. He came to his front door in his pajamas at the beginning of the attack, fired a few shots in the air, yawned and then went back into his house."

When the officer "realized we were moving into the town," Chikoti said, "he tried to run away and we shot him down. We later found sausage and eggs still cooking on his stove. We ate them."

Chikoti said the majority of the Popular Movement soldiers ran out of the town, "but we caught 12 of them, put them into a room and fired a rocket into it to kill them. It saves ammunition," he said.

I passed through Ringoma on Jan. 13, a month after the attack, on my way north. The red clay-tile roots of all the cement houses, the church and shops of the town had been smashed by the guerrillas with rifle butts.

"We destroy the roofs so the soldiers won't return," said Capt. N'Dala Domingos Tchniang. "It's the rainy season now and they don't like to sleep in houses without roofs."

The town was surrounded by fields of eight-foot-high corn and leafy mango trees were the rectangular mud-and-thatch houses of the peasants who still occupied them.

"The people are now angry with their soba," said Maj. Kanjundo. "Before the attack we told them it would be dangerous to stay here with the soldiers. Now they believe us.

"The soba ran away to General Machado," interjected Tehiang, "and asked the government officials to send more soldiers, but they have refused. They told him Ringoma was too far away and they would be cut off during an attack. He better not return here either. I will beat him."

The grass at the center of the town was covered with hundreds of spent cartridges, their brass coloring already turning gray. In front of a pockmarked, roofless building lay four empty green wooden boxes with Russian lettering.

"They hold Soviet 82-mm. mortars, some rifle ammunition, and these," said Tchiang as he pointed down to the brand-new brown Soviet combat boots he was wearing, of a dead Popular Movement soldier.

"We take anything we can use," said Tchiang with a nonchalant shrug, we are "guerrilleros."