Here, a word portrait of the usually faceless, formless African guerrilla who has carried the war into the breakaway colony suggests why a military mystery could produce stalemate and perhaps peace. In one of the Sherlock Homes tales, the crucial clue proved to be a dog that did not bark.

In similar fashion, it is important to understand what is not happening in the conflict here. The African guerrilla who has swept into the country with the task of destroying the ruling order is not doing what one would expect.

Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) have put 14,000 guerrillas into the country. Most of them are well-armed, extraordinarily fit in a physical sense and sufficiently well-motivated that the government's recent offer of amnesty has produced only a tricle of defections, perhaps 500 or so.

But for every farmer driven from the land by rocket and mortar barrages, two or three remain. For every car struck in an ambush, thousands move around unscathed. The murders and maraudings suffered by black and white civilians have not stopped the factories and mine and power plants and railroads from operating. The industrial stock average just hit an historic high.

As in Sherlock Holmes, the mystery is why ZANLA and ZIPRA are not accomplishing what they should. Imagine the death and destruction 14,000 heavily armed marines or paratroopers or Army infantry could inflict roaming around Maryland and Virginia, on full-automatic, and one can imagine the lethal potential of the guerrilla forces here.

Coming out of this disparity is a confused picture of the guerrilla forces, a picture of bandits and thugs mixed in with tough and resourceful fighters, struggling at times fitfully and others valiantly but always against enormous odds. They will attack an armored military convoy one day, and on another day they will slaughter three unarmed International Red Cross workers carrying food and medicine to blacks.

A military commander here at Chiredzi in the lush low veldt just north of the Mozambique border is puzzled by it all after years of fighting.

"We've got about 1,000 'terrs' down here, and they're up to the usual things -- ambushes, mines, stock theft. But for the number of people they've got out in the bush, it's really very quiet. Some weeks, we don't get a single kill. One week we got 46. But we aren't taking any casualties of any importance, maybe one (fatality) a month," he said.

The major explanation here and all over the country is that the guerrillas are deplorable troops by 20th century standards.

A few nights ago, 2,000 rounds of automatic rifle, machine-gun, mortar and rocket fire were aimed at a "protected village" near Chiredzi. The fire came from close range but no casualties were inflicted, no buildings destroyed.

Stories of this kind are legion and although they come from soldiers and civilians loyal to the Salisbury government they are convincing and believable.

Anthony Swier-Williams has apple orchards at Inyanga just a few miles from the Mozambique border. Guerilla troops operate constantly in the area. They have tried several times to drive him out but they always fail. In the most recent incident, he said, 20 rocket rounds were fired at his home from less than 100 yards -- point blank range -- but the house was never hit.

Paddy Thompson, who farms in Matebeleland in the west, told of a similar experience -- 2,000 rounds fired at his house from close range, with the only damage being a few holes in the roof.

The belief in this kind of inefficiency is so widespread that one of the psychological objectives of this or any guerrilla war -- disabling terror and fear -- has substantially failed. The civilian population has not retreated into bunkers and basements. They are armed and cautious and security conscious. But, in the main, they go about their business in a relatively "normal" way.

"We've got to do it," says Paddy Thompson. "If we let them intimidate us, we've lost the war."

So thousands of cars flood highways every day despite the threat of ambushes and land mines. The cricket and golf matches continue.

In one of the tribal trust lands near Bulawayo five women from Scotland still operate the Ingwenya Mission secondary school with more than 200 boys and girls from all over the country.

The women are Presbyterians two of them in their 20s two middle-aged and the fifth near retirement. The principal, Marion Graham, presides serenely over tea cake and conversation. She has been here 18 years, has never been attacked and has total faith of God's mercy. The ladies have no intention of leaving, although many sililar missions have been abandoned or destroyed.

Their tribal trusts land, admittedly, is one of the most secure in Matebeleland. But it is not immune and occasionally there are psychological tremors. Some of the students came home from a holiday in the spring and told of meeting of guerrilas in their villages. Some of them had been students at the Ingwenya school. "I hope they remember me fondly," Graham says.

The magnificent and mysterious 9th century stone ruins of Zimabawe, whence this country gets its new name, are about 20 miles from Fort Victoria. There are few tourists anymore. The one-track road to the ruins is dangerous at all times and sees littles or no traffic at night.

The Zimbabwe Ruins Hotel, once a busy resort, is partially gutted from rocket barrages. A large bunker has been built in the courtyard. Not a room was occupied on the day of my recent visit but three young nurses were lying in the sun around the pool on their afternoon off.

On the way back to town, Dennis St. Clair, my driver spotted what appeared to be a road block about a mile ahead. My instinct was to return to the hotel for a gin and tonic. St. Clair's instinct was to have some excitement.

He pumped up a round in his machine gun and handed me a pistol with instructions: "Put a round in the snout. Fire when I tell you and hold on."

He got the Land Rover up to 75 miles an hour, roared around a curve and then braked to a hairy stop.It was in fact a road block, but the government's, not the guerrillas.

St. Clair apologized for the lack of action.

I wiped the sweat off my palms.

In this derring-do behavior by the whites here, there is clearly an element of racism. They simply do not believe that black guerrillas pose a consistent and serious threat.

This is even more true among the government forces -- both white and black. They complain that the Patriotic Front will not stand and fight. They tell endless stories of their four or five man teams taking in 10 or 20 times as many "Gooks." Their own figures show a kill ratio of better than 10-to-1.

There is more to this than simply military incompetence and no racial explanation can stand up. The same tribes that produce the guerrilla armies produce the aggressive black troops who make up 80 percent of the government forces.

The better explanation is that the guerrillas are operating under incredibly difficult conditions. Many of them undoubtedly are poorly trained. iBut even the best-trained among them are confronted with problems no conventional soldier must face.

They have no secure bases or supply lines, despite their leaders claims to the contrary. They enter the country easily across thousands of miles of border impossible to seal off. But once inside, they are on their own. They have no radio communications with one another or with their commanders in Zambia and Mozambique. They have no realiable source of resupply. Their logistics system is nothing more than men and boys walking hundreds of miles across dangerous countryside with heavy loads on their backs. They have no vehicles, no aircraft, no weapon repair shops. They may brings in the superb AK-47 rifle but if the firing pin breaks it is useless.

Unlike the government forces, they get no relief in the field, no retraining classes and exercises, no real medical care. They bring in primitive first-aid kits and meager supplies of medicines but if they become seriously ill or wounded, they are likely to die.

They have no discipline or leadership in conventional military terms. This is because they are forced to operate in small widely dispersed sections of no more than 10 men each. They hide in tribal trust land villages living off the food, clothing and money obtained willingly or unwillingly from the tribes.

The two armies -- ZIPRA and ZAMIA -- are allied as the Patriotic Front but there are long-standing hostillities between them that occasionally erupt in clashes on the battlefield. ZIPPRA leader Nkomo, despite his Soviet backing, is considered a capitalist by instinct. ZANIA leader Mugabe is known as an ascetic who is dedicated to the Marxist doctrine he preaches. He tends to business.

Under such conditions, the relative ineffectiveness of many of the guerrillas is understandable. There is always the possibility they will be turned in by informers. There is always the possibility they will be spotted by aircraft or military patrols or tracked down by scouts. They can only rarely form into units larger than a squad for fear of discovery and annihilation. So they operate primarily at night, in little bands, without night-scopes or other devices to shore up their accuracy.

There is another theory goings aroundhere -- the theory of the "good life" many guerrillas allegedly lead in the bush. A young army captain at Bulawayo said:

"We picked up one of them the other day who had been in the bush two years and in all that time had only two contacts [fight]. Why should they fight or come in and surrender? They're living the good life. They lie around those kraals [family compounds in the villages] with all the food, beer and women they want. If they want money, they rob a village store or a bus driver. It's better than working."

Robert Mugabe, one of the front's two leaders, may have had some of this in mind earlier this year when he urged his troops to "be more daring, take (more) risks and (make) more sacrifices."

Some of them do all those things.

The same army captain who talked about the "good life" also talked about the endurance and bravery he has encountered:

"God, they are fit. They can walk all day carrying a load no white man could handle. They are unreal in the punishment they can take. I put an FN [rifle] round in a 'terr's face one day and took his jaw off. There was bone and teeth all over the place. But when I got up there, he was gone. wHe had run off. Can you imagine a white doing that? No way. He would have just laid down and died."