"I think there are people who make a living from acting in the name of human rights."

The government official was using English.

"I think they make a profit from it."

His pronunciation was crisp.

"We are amazed. . . . We thought it didn't do much for anybody. . . . We were expecting a more important person in the world to get a Nobel Prize. . . . It was done to bother us."

And it worked?

A slight nod, cool, unsmiling. "It worked."

THE FIRST RESPONSE was silence.

For nearly two days after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the sculptor and human rights activist Adolfo Perez Esquivel, thereby broadcasting the fact that the 1980 prizewinner had been tortured in an Argentinian jail, the military regime had nothing to say.

On the government-owned television stations, newscasters hurried references to the Nobel. One broadcaster, in the middle of his world report, was heard to announce the news this way: "The Argentine architect Adolfo Perez Esquivel today was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

"And speaking of peace, there are serious problems between Iraq and Iran . . . ."

The news came by telephone, by radio, by the evening papers stacked on Buenos Aires newsstands. It came as Jacobo Timerman, the exiled Argentine newspaper editor, was declaring before an international gathering of editors in San Diego that the Argentines are "fascist."

It came as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was preparing to present its massive indictment of Argentina before the Organization of American States' November meeting in Washington.

Then a statement emerged from Government House: Perez Esquivel's work was "effectively used, regardless of his intentions, to make the movements of members of various terrorist organizations easier."

The newspaper Conviccion asked the prizewinner to meditate on mercy "when the noise of the propagandistic Nobel-associated whirlpool dies down." The news magazine Somos ran a lengthy cover story in which it linked Timerman, Perez Esquivel, the OAS Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian, the Communist Party and the anti-Christ.

The national federal police chief got up at a public ceremony and said nobody ever started a human rights committee for the police. A writer from Gente, a big Argentine glossy, went to Oslo to see what had happened. According to his article, he asked a Norwegian bishop who knew Perez Esquivel:

"Do you understand the complexity of the Argentine terrorist network? Bringing publicity to peace, to improve their war, is one of the subversives' tactics. It is a form of disarming the enemy psychologically and protecting armed bands. It is also a way to defend as victims the teerrorists, who were defeated in a war they started."

Four years after a coup brought the military to power, official dogma here is that Argentina has just won a terrible internal war against subversion. The word "war" is crucial, since it implies a certain suspension of rules.

There is little argument that the country faced a severe problem from organized terrorism in the early and mid-1970s, including rampant kidnaping for ransom and assassination of prominent business and government leaders.

But government tactics in combating it -- the arrest and long detention of thousands without charge; the disappearance of thousands more at the hands of the military; the widespread use of torture and even murder, all extensively and persuasively documented by reputable organizations and foreign governments -- amount to what the OAS report charged was "state terrorism."

In fighting subversion, Argentina's numerous accusers contend, the government turned against the very cititzens it exists to protect. But under the military's "war" doctrine, anyone thought even remotely tied to government-defined subversion, with or without court-sanctioned proof, is not a citizen but the enemy, and must be wiped out for Argentina's survival.

To the military government, therefore, the Nobel Peace Prize committee has bestowed international celebrity on an enemy collaborator.

IN AND OUT THEY file, with notebooks, cameras and giant spotlights that will shine on Perez Esquivel and make him squint behind his glasses.

He receives them all, the North Americans, the West Germans, the French television crew that trails wires in his bare white office and follows him to mass and neighborhood restaurants. He looks tired, and not particularly happy. His Spanish is soft, slow and careful.

"We must point out the causes of these injustices, structural injustices," he says. "When a man forgets his fello man, he forgets God."

An unmarked car sits just outside the office, manned, motionless. When you go in, it is a man in a Ford, and when you come out, it is a man in a Peugeot. The driver gazes at the steering wheel.

The office door opens and closes quickly, sweeping afternoon light across a shadowed hallway. Perez Esquivel sits in the last room, his back to the black and white Mohandas Gandhi photograph on the wall.

"There have been lovely things," he said quietly in a conversation last week. "Demonstrators at the level of the people. We went to a restaurant, and when we entered, everybody got up and began to applaud. It was filled with workers. And on the street, many taxis stop, or buses, or cars, and people make signs, with thumbs up, to say, 'Good!' or 'We're with you!'"

And from the government -- any word?

"Not one," said Perez Esquivel."Nothing."

He is a recognized artist, former sculpture professor, designer of his own home. The center of his work life is a spare side-street office with a broken skylight and two white cats that pad across the bare wooden floors.

The region is scattered with rooms like these, the church annexes or unmarked apartments where you guard your words on the telephone.

There is one in another part of Buenos Aires, where women come to sign petitions and place unanswered requests for information in file cabinets and meet weekly to speak about relatives who were taken away in the night and never heard from again.

Perez Esquivel, working under the organization called The Peace and Justice Service, is a coordinator of human rights groups. The service publishes a newsletter. Perez Esquivel travels from country to country, extrolling nonviolence, visiting Christian organizations, attending seminars, exchanging information and support.

He was arrested in Buenos Aires in April 1977, tortured, and released 14 months later. There was no trial. He does not talk about his time in jail.

"I am not interested in stirring things," he said the last time someone asked him. "Many have suffered more than I have."

He also smiles away questions seeking more precise descriptions of his work.

"Our work is done in Latin America," he said, "at the level of the indigenous people, the peasants, the workers, many priests, bishops and pastors who have worked many years in a liberation evangelization.

"We always live with much difficulty, even today," he continued. "I am astonished to see so many journalists from all over the world, who come looking for the declarations we have made for so many years."

He is not sure what the government will do with him now. An Argentine law endows all Nobel winners with a lifelong annuity equal to a Supreme Court justice's salary. If he ever gets it, Perez Esquivel has said, he will use the money for educational and social work.

"Our work here is very simple," he said."We do not go outside the law. We only ask that if a person breaks a law, that he be judged by a court, that if a person disappears, they tell where he is."

"IT IS AN INSULT to Argentina." The education official's voice, this one in Spanish, rose and echoed a little against the high, cream-colored walls of his office. "Think of it. The other candidates were the pope, Carter, and they considered him more worthy."

The official was growing emotional. "The president keeps say, it was a dirty war, with terrible errors. But it's over. France rebuilt itself. Israel rebuilt itself. Japan, Nagasaki, Hiroshima -- they reconstructed. That's war. Violence devastates."

THE NEWS REACHED the thick-ankled woman in the fourth-floor apartment when she bent to pick up the morning paper. She stood, as she read, where the men had come four years earlier to take her 16-year-old granddaughter away without explaining what the child had done, or whether she was to be killed, or where they would take her after the car disappeared down the silent street.

It was not exactly happiness that filled the woman now, with the girl still gone, but she could sit at the dining room table, spread her hands across the white knit doily and speak of the day Perez Esquivel came to visit the relatives of the disappeared: "I talked to him, too, and he hugged me, and told me, 'Have faith.'"