After an hour long wait that seemed interminable, a guerrilla appeared at the treeline on the west bank of the Cuanza River and silently waved a pink palm above his head in a long, sweeping motion signaling us that it was safe to cross over. The forest on the other side was free of ambushers.

The two Luimbi boatmen raised their eight-foot poling sticks, stood up slowly at either end of their weather-beaten canoe, a bleached-gray log, and motioned us to enter the boat three at a time. Dark brown log pillars of a bridge blown up by the guerrillas protruded through the gray water - jagged reminders of how vulnerable we were to a helicopter attack on the openfloodplain of this ancient Angolan river valley.

I clambered into the bobbing canoe with two other guerrillas. The boatmen pushed out into the stream, carefully keeping the prow pointing into the current and poling the boat sideways to the west bank.

Almost an hour later, all 40 odd guerrillas had been ferried across the Cuanza River in threes, and we moved quicklly toward the distant forest, I looked over my shoulder through the heavy rain and saw the two boatmen pole back to the east river bank, drag the heavy canoe from the water and hide it in a patch of tall grass.

"We'll have to move north for another six hours," whispered N'Dala Domingos Tchiang, a UNITA guerrilla captain. "The rain is good cover more far away from the river."

Tching's comments were the first words spoken in the two hours we had spent waiting and being ferried across the river, since passing through Umpulo, a riverside town destroyed by the guerrillas. Even the peasant boatmen had said nothing. Voices carry long distances on an open plain.

Such conditioning also helps the guerilla accept, without the prospect of quick victory, a life filled with anxious moments of anticipating a sudden attack, traveling along distances on foot in bad weather or suffering a crippling wound with no medical aid.

What motivates men to live like this? What drives the guerrilla, and his family to fight on with no end in sight from weakness or strength, with and without food supplies, with and without ammunition.

The night before the crossing, Jan.11, peasant supporters of the UNITA guerrillas told Capt. Tchiang that Angolan govermnent patrols had recently been seen on the west side of a Cuanza. We were moving through the same area.

Once we had left the vincinity of the river and were into the forest, we settled into a leisurely three-mile-an-hour gait , stopping at a "safe" village 18 miles away. To the guerrillas, a safe village is one where the soba , or chief, and his followers are strong UNITA supporters.

The villagers brought us bowls of boiled corn meal, stiffened to the consistency of bread dough, and rancid, greasy, smokee hippopotamus meat. Leftovers.

Tchiang laughed when I turned up my nose at the meat. "You'll get used to a lot of things."

During the 7 1/2 months and 2,100 miles that I lived and hiked with the UNITA guerrillas I did "get used to a lot of things" - including hippopotamus meat, which, when fresh, tastes like beef - but I always knew my adjustment to their harsh existence was only temporary. They, however, might conceivably have to live this way for years.

In dozens of interviews and conversations I probed to find out what sustains them in their war.

he rank and file UNITA guerrillas would initially respond with lengthy rhetorical anato-Communist spiels against the Marxist Popular Movement government and Cuban troops. Very few of them, however, knew the difference between the Communism of their enemies and UNITA leadership.

Their next level of response would take an African nationalist posture against the large number of Portuguese whites and Angolan mesticos (persons of mixed African and Portuguese ancestry )running the popular Movement, a situation that visibly rankled some of them.

At the base of their alienation, however - a position more readily articulated by guerrillas from the peasant class than those from the educated elite - was an emotional attachment to kinship, tribe and the Angolan south, and an almost myptical allegiance to UNITA's charismatic guerrilla leader, Jonas Malheiro Savimbi.

These elements have already sustained some of the present-day UNITA officers, many from the peasant class, in their fight against the Portuguese from 1966 to1974. During that time, they had also repeatedly south,and an almost mystical alleclashed in fratricidal fighting with the guerrillas of the Popular Movement and the National Front, each of the three groups trying to cradicate the other two.

When the Portuguese colonial African empire began to crumble to the spring of 1974, each of the three guerrilla movements was allowed by the Portuguese to proselytize openly among the 5.3 million Angolans. Each movement rushed to build is armed forces.

Today, many of the new UNITA officers are former members of elite commando units of the Portuguese colonial army. Half of that army - which reached a peak strength of 69,000 men in 1974 - were African Angolans. UNITA also recruited heavily among the youths of the urban African elite, something they had been unable to do so during the war against the Portuguese.

Most of the former members of the Portuguese armed force now in UNITA said they joined voluntarily because it was the movement based in the south and was their political preference. Some of the urban youths said they were either tricked into becoming UNITA guerrillas of literally kidnaped.

Still other youths said they had grown up as refugees in neighboring Zambia and Zaire, where they were drawn into cladestine activities for UNITA by their parents. They returned to Angola after 1974 as UNITA supporters.

Drawing from these sources and a large reservoir of peasant supporters, the UNITA guerrillas claim they have grown from 3,000 in 1973 to 23,000 today, but not without problems.

I spent 10 weeks with the UNITA guerrillas in 1973 when they were fighting the Portuguese. The rigid discipline evidenteverywhere then has deteriorated today.

Overall their morale is high, but they are plagued with desertions, disobedience, alcoholism, stealing and, at times, the abuse of unmarried women living in their miliitary camps.

"It was like that when we began in 1966 also," retorted Maj. Mateus Katalayo, a guerrilla officer who has been with UNITA since then. "What you saw in 1973 was an army that had been through seven years of training. The small number of experienced [guerrillas] were swallowed by the large number of recruits."

Since the beginning of this year there has been a heavy emphasis on discipline, with punishments ranging from imprisonment in crude log prisons to severe beatings with sticks.

"We've also started to improve our political education," said Lt. Col. Charles Kandanda. "Explaining the reasons we're fighting against the Popular Movement forces, that the Cubans and Russians are 'socialist imperialists'".

"Many of our [new] guerrillas don't have any political awareness and some are not interested in politics." said Kandanda, "but we want to build a political army. They won't fight well unless they understand why they are fighting."

Guerrilla Capt. Tchiang, a stern disciplinarian who struts in his tapered, tan castoff South African military uniform when addressing his soliders, is one UNITA soldier who professes disdain for politics. A lean and muscular 21-year-old high-school graduate in a country where less than 10 per cent of the population is literate, Tchiang was a member of the urban elite. He said he was kidnaped into UNITA's army.

One night while warming ourselves around a village cooking fire. Tchiang pointed across the dancing flames to one of the subordinate officers in his company, 2d Lt. Junior Costa.

"My friend over there arranged to have me kidnaped." he said in Swahili with a mock show of malice.

"What now?" asked the perplexed Costa, who does not understand Swahili, in Portuguese. Tchiang learned Swahili two year ago while undergoing 10 months of military training with 14 other UNITA guerrillas in Tanzania.

chiang continued to tell me his tale in Swahili, and, at appropriate moments, I would look over at Costa in feigned dismay. Costa showed increasing anxiety with each glance.

"I had a car," continued Tchiang, "lots of girlfriends and wasn't interested in politics. It was around the spring of 1975 and the movements were all holding rallies and recruiting soldiers. I never listened to the speakers. I went to the rallies to see the girls."

Costa had already joined the UNITA guerrillas, Tchiang said, and was continually after him to join also. "I kept telling him I wasn't interested." Tchiang said.

One afternoon in April, Costa invited him to a party in Bie city (formerly Silva Porto). "He said there would be lots of girls." Tchiang added.

When he arrived at the "party" that night and parked his car, a group of armed UNITA guerrillas stepped out of a clump of bushes and ordered him to stand in front of the house with a group of nattily dressed men. "They had been invited to the party also," he said.

His friend Costa came over and laughed at him, Tchiang said: "He told me it was going to be a long, long party," he recalled. After waiting several hours the group of "partygoers" were piled into a truck and driven east to Luso.

"At the airport [UNITA leader] Savimbi spoke to us about how we must learn all we could while training in Tanzania," Tchiang said. "No, I don't think he knew some of us had been kidnaped. After he finished speaking we boarded a plane and flew to Dares Salaam," Tanzania's capital.

While Tchiang was training in Tanzania that summer, fighting broke out in Angola between UNITA and the Popular Movement.

"Our (Tanzanian) officers told us that if UNITA won we could go back, but if they lost we would be put in detention camps." At the point, Tchiang said, he became an earnest UNITA supporter. "I was angry."

The training continued, however, and Tchiang said they worked harder at learning everything that was taught. "We were frightened," Tchiang said about himself and other UNITA trainees. "We didn't know what was happening at home. We read about the Cubans coming to help the Popular Movement."

By October "It was clear that Tanzania was going to support the Popular Movement," said Kawendima Chipipa, UNITA's representative in Tanzania at the time, "so I arranged to get our men out." Chipipa is now inside Angola with the UNITA guerrillas.

"The customs people at the Dar es Salaam airport asked us who we were" when they were preparing to board a flight out of tanzania, said Tchiang. "I told them we were visiting college students and they asked if we had had a good time and come back again. Then we felt."

Back in Angola in early November "We were put right into battle and fought until we retreated from Qago Continho" March 13, 1976, he said.

"I never want to fight like that again. Day and night for hours until the muzzle on my (Soviet-made AK-47 assault) rifle began to melt. The rifle? I captured it from a Cuban I killed.

"I prefer the guerrilla fighting we're doing now," he continued. "Our attacks don't last longer than two hours and always be surprise, by surprise. Politics?" he said wrinkling his nose. "Sitaki " - Swahili for "I don't want it."

"WHAT?" 2nd Lt. Costa asked again when he saw that Capt. Tchiang's story was finished. "You just go and get some more firewood," Tchiang told him abruptly in Portuguese. As Costa moved away, Tchiang switched back to Swahili.

You should have seen his face when I came back a captain," Tchiang laughed. "We met up in Gago Coutinho just before the retreat. I had him transferred to my company. No, I'm not angry with him now. I just make him work harder than the others."

George Pinto Chikoti, a 22-year-old private in UNITA's guerrilla army, came back to Angola to spend his "school holidays." after 14 years as a political refugee in neighboring Zambia. Chikoti flew into Huambo in December 1975, when the civil war was at its hottest.

"I was supposed to started medical school on a full scholarship at the University of Zambia the next March," Chikoti said, "but I was really anxious to find out what was happening in Angola" after the end of Portuguese rule. Angola had achieved independence the previous month.

Chikoti, his father, mother, two brothers and sister fled Angola in 1961 after an African neighbor of their in Huambo informed the Portuguese colonial secret police that the father had "political books" in their home.

As he grew up in Zambia, Chikoti said he was drawn into the clandestine activites of UNITA because his father was a member. "I picked up English quickly" in the former British colony, Chikoti said, "and was kept busy translating documents and propaganda."

When he returned to Angola, he was drafted to teach English at Huambo's industrial high school to UNITA members and then fled into the forest with the guerrillas when they retreated from Huambo Feb. 7, 1976.

"I was still planning to go back to Zambia to begin school in March," Chikoti said. His older brother, who had reentered Angola several months ahead of him, "told me I was obligated to stay and fight. Thereafter I took military training. It took me some time to get adjusted."

Chikoti said his first fight took place last Sept. 9, when the UNITA guerrillas attacked a train on Angola's Benguela railroad between the towns of Nova Sintra and Kamacupa.

"Everything was quite strange," he recalled. "So much fire and explosions. But when I began to fire and people started jumping out of the train, I felt jumping out of the train, I felt good. Before, 1 felt afraid."

Catamba Didaldo is a cherub-faced Cuanhama peasant youth and UNITA guerrilla who guesses his age to be "about 18." Didaldo said he was born in Chiedi, a southern Angolan town close to the border of South African-ruled Namibia, an area where fierce fighting took place last fall between UNITA and the combined Cuban. Popular Movement and Swapo (South-West Africa People's Organization) forces.

The South Africans reported that some 3,000 refugees, mainly Cuanhama, fled across the border into northern Namibia during height of the fighting.

I met Didaldo after he had hiked four weeks from the Southern border area up into central Angola's Huambo Province to attend UNITA's congress at the end of March. He said he had just escaped from prison.

"I joined UNITA in 1974, before the (civil) war began," he said. "I was attracted by the guns and military uniforms they had. The National Front and the Popular Movement were recruiting in my area, too, but they only passed through giving out money and salt. I joined UNITA because they stayed and held meetings with us continuously."

Last fall there was fighting "all around my home, but I only fought in one battle. It was my first battle," Didaldo said.

Didaldo said he had gone with a band of UNITA guerrillas to attack a Popular Movement base when he and his group were caught in an ambush.

"I ran and took cover behind a tree and pointed my gun in their direction, but I did not fire. The commander passed and said if I didn't fire he would take my ammunition and give it to another guerrilla," he said.

"I was afraid of the mortars. I had never heard them before, but I began to fire and they finally ran away," Didaldo said. "After the fight, I never felt fear again."

Soon afterward, Didaldo said, he was arrested by Popular Movement soldiers "when I went into Chiedi to attend my father's funeral." He said he had hidden his weapons, a Portuguese G-3 automatic rifle, a pistol and grenade, at his parents' cattle ranch a mile outside the town.

"The people [at the funeral] told the soldiers that I was a UNITA guerrilla," and he was put into the town's jail with other suspected guerrillas, he said.

"I was slapped around many times, but never beaten badly," Didaldo said. "The Cubans would come and say, 'UNITA must be eliminated from here. We don't want UNITA here.' The Cubans did not slap us much, but the Popular Movement soldiers would beat us for a long time.

"Every Saturday they would hold a rally in Chiedi and they used to show me at the rallies and call me retarded," Didaldo continued. "They told the people that [guerrilla leader] Savimbi was in jail. They would point to me and tell the people, 'These are the bandits who are stoppin the development of Angola."

After one Saturday rally, at 4 a.m. Sunday last Feb. 20, Didaldo said, the UNITA guerrillas attacked Chiedi and the prison guards ran away. "I stuck my head out of the door and the guerrillas thought I was a Cuban and shot at me," he said.

"Then they recognized me and all the prisoners were released and all the civilians were told to leave the town for the countryside," Didaldo said.

"I wasn't too angry about the beatings they gave me," Didaldo added, "but they shouldn't have called me retarded in front of my [Cuanhama] people. I will make them pay for that."

The type of bitter resolve young Didaldo expressed is also evident in the lengthy, unyielding commitment the older UNITA guerrillas have made, such as Lt. Col. Jermias Kussia, 43.

Kussia was trained in China in 1965, captured by Portuguese soldiers in eastern Angola in 1966, beaten until he lost the sight in his left eye, spent almost eight years working in the Sao Nicolau salt mines while in prison and said he is a great grandson of the Ovimbundu chief Ekuikui, leader of a bloody by unsuccessful rebellion against the Portuguese in 1980.

"As I fought against Portuguese colonialism and culture, so will I fight against the Popular Movement and European communism," said the usually jovial Kussia in a harsh voice.

"I am not against sharing independence with the Popular Movement government, but I am against their importing Cubans, Russians and Communist ideology here," he continued.

"I prefer complete liberty without intervention of foreigners, because they want to end our way of life. We will lose our heritage."

NEXT: The Prisoners