Omar Aw Yusif hung limply on his mother's crooked arm, weeping in a soft, sickly rasp.

His balding head tipped in a futile nod toward her dry breast, and his withered legs dangled out of the wrinkles drooping from his pelvic bones. At 3, Omar looked less than a year old. Before he got started in life, starvation and disease had brought him to the verge of death in this squalid refugee camp just inside the border with Ethiopia.

The stream of ethnic Somalis like Omar and his family into this and 24 other refugee camps in Somalia at a rate of 1,000 a day for the last several months has created what a U.S. relief official called "by far the most serious refugee problem in the world." Somalia's refugee population has tripled in the last year, reaching an officially estimated 670,000 in camps and 1.2 million in all -- more than one-fourth of the normal Somali population.

About 90 percent of the refugees in camps are women and young children, according to Somali government estimates. Many of their husbands, sons, brothers or fathers are members of the Western Somali Liberation Front, the main guerrilla group fighting to throw off Ethiopian control over the 127,000 square miles of eastern Ethiopia known as the Ogaden. Many others are dead, victims of the little-noticed war that has simmered for two years and intensified over the last six months.

"They're dead, they're fighting or they're with the camels," said a U.S. relief official in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

As a result, the camps have, in large part, become rear areas for the Ogaden war -- places where the Somali guerrillas' families can find refuge from the combat and benefit from a growing effort by the Somali government and foreign donors, chiefly the United States, to feed and care for them.

The influx has raised fears that, unless the struggle for control of the Ogaden region is resolved, the Somalis pouring across the border could turn into a nation of perennial refugees like the Palestinians, with unforeseen consequences for stability in the critical Horn of Africa. Their disruptive potential is regarded as particularly dangerous as the United States negotiates for use of Somali military facilities in exchange for military and economic aid which is likely to result in a closer relationship to the government of President Mohammed Siad Barre.

In addition, relief officials estimate hundreds of thousands more residents of the southern Ogaden's Sidamo region also have become displaced persons with Ethiopia because of fighting between Ethiopian troops and the southern Ogaden guerrillas. Officials fear that these refugees -- mostly Oromo people native to the area -- could also come across the border to seek refuge in Somalia even though they are not ethnic Somalis.

"It's a problem that's going to be there until it's solved," said Maj. Gen. Jama Mohammed Ghalib, Somalia's minister of local government and rural development, who is responsible for the refugee effort.

Ghalib and other Somali officials complain that the world has turned away from the misery of refugees from the Ogaden to focus on the fleeing Vietnamese, the escaping Cambodians and now, on Cubans sailing to Florida.

"Sometimes we feel that if we put the refugees in a boat and sent them out into the Indian Ocean, we would get more publicity," said Saeed Gase, Ghalib's deputy on the National Commission For Refugees.

On a recent tour of the United States, Canada and Europe, Ghalib said that he found plenty of sympathy but little real willingness to resolve the problem. "They always said they were interested, they were sorry, but I don't know," he said, holding out his palms.

A tour of several camps and conversations with Somali and foreign relief officials revealed a problem of stunning proportions for Somalia, which is one of the world's 25 poorest nations, with per capita income below $100 and chronic food shortages in the best of times.

One face of the problem is that of Omar Aw Yusif. His mother carried him for seven days across the Ogaden scrub land before the family, made it to this transit camp, a three-hour drive for Hergeysa at the northern end of the Somali wedge. The mother, Amina Bedeh, 40, brought her six other children on the trek in the second week of May. She sought "medicine for my boy."

She and her husband have a simple explanation for the decision to abandon their farm at the village of Lafa-Issa, near Jigjiga in the Ogaden region, which the Somalis call Western Somalia.

"We were afraid," she told a visitor to the hut here where she set up housekeeping. "There were wars going on there."

A neighbor, Abdi Elam Durir, 60, told a similar tale. After his cattle were slaughtered and Ethiopian soldiers raped the women of Sheed Dheer village, Durir packed a few belongings and headed out with his wife and five children.

"There is nothing worse than seeing your wife raped," he said. "Killing is better than that."

In all the camps, Somali refugees tell stories like Durir's: Guerrillas of the Western Somalia Liberation Front fighting Ethiopian troops, Ethiopians mounting retaliatory raids on Somali villages and Somalis fleeing to escape the brutality.

Almost without exception, the refugees are proud that their sons and husbands are fighting in the Western Somalia Liberation Front. Ossob Abdillahi Mohammed, who fled to Sabaad Camp near Hergeysa six months ago, said one of her sons is a commando whom she has not seen for two years. A second son was killed in combat and two daughters were machine-gunned by revenge-seeking Ethiopian soliders, she said.

Her eldest son is still at home. At 15, he soon will be joining the guerrillas in Ogaden, she said.

"We are enemies," she explained through an interpreter.

Recalling the two-week trek into Somalia, she said she had walked for so long that "my feet were watering." When a visitor commented on her stark, slim good looks despite her travil, she replied: "If you could see me the way I was back home, you would not recognize me now."

A medical relief worker said her gaunt face showed she was anemic, the result of an inadequate camp diet of rice, oil, dates and sugar.

Officially, the refugees are supposed to receive about 20 ounces of food a day -- the size of a big hamburger. In fact, food shortages have reduced their rations to about 16 ounces a day at best.

Many receive less than that. Shortages became so severe at one camp recently that residents stormed the food store to ransack whatever was available, sources said. Such shortages contributed to the death of 700 children in the first three months of the year at Agabar Camp.

Camps in northern Somalia would have been left with close to nothing if Iraq had not dispatched an emergency shipment of 4,400 tons of dates, oil and blankets to the port of Berbera last March, relief officials say.

Distribution of even these goods has been slowed in recent days because of an inquiry into alleged irregularities by the Somali colonel running the northern relief efforts. During an investigation and audit, officials closed the warehouse at Hergeysa, blocking shipments to the camps.

The main problem, however, is transport, officials say. Staffan Bodemar, head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees team in Somalia, said he needs nearly 100 trucks, but has only 25.

As a result, refugees were going hungry here at Tug Wejale Camp while 838 tons of dried milk sat waiting in a warehouse on the Soviet-built pier of Berbera harbor. Hundreds of yellow plastic bottles of Iraqi-supplied cooking oil also lay strewn about the stucco building in the humid costal heat.