Hussein Ali, a wiry stick of a man bereft of all but the torn clothes on his back, stood amid the fresh returnees from Somalia telling his tale of coming in from the cold of guerrilla war in the harsh Ogaden bush.

At the height of the 1977-78 war between Somalia and Ethiopia for control of the Ogaden, he, like many of the Somali-speaking nomads of this barren rangeland, was recruited to fight for the Western Somali Liberation Front by the invading Somali Army.

"We were forced to go to Somalia and were put in a camp there," Ali said. "Then I was forced to join the front and sent to Gure [a military center in Somalia] for training."

Later, he returned and fought with the front inside the Ogaden in the Web Valley near here. Life was tough, however.

"We were given a very small ration of food and told to live off the people," he said.

About three months ago, Ali continued, "I understood we were brothers fighting brothers and I quit. The front was disorganized and disintegrating in my area and so I escaped, myself and 200 others. When you leave, you have to leave everything behind, your animals, everything."

But Ali managed to take his wife and five children and reach Kebri Dahar, where he now lives with 15,000 other Somalis in a crowded camp for displaced war and drought victims.

Whether Ali has told the truth is difficult for an outsider, or even Ethiopian relief officials, to tell. But that Somalis are returning to Kebri Dahar and other Ogaden towns they once called home cannot be doubted after a visit to three of them.

Another kind of Somali returnee is Abdi Abdullahi, a conspicuously well-dressed former shopkeeper from Kebri Dahar who said he was forced to leave with the retreating Somali Army that occupied this crossroad market town for about half a year in 1977.

Abdullahi, now destitute, said almost the entire population of 15,000 to 18,000 people was taken back to Somalia when the Somali Army gave up Kebri Dahar. Now, he said, many townspeople want to return home and are escaping from refugee camps across the border spurred by the meager food rations available there.

According to Ethiopian relief officials here, 300 more Somalis recently arrived in a three-day period after walking 12 days from a Somali government refugee camp.

"We escaped one by one or in twos at night," said one, lined up with others at the local branch office of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission waiting to register to get on the dole.

At camps in Degahabur and Jijiga, other Ogaden towns, the story was much the same. A desire to return home and a shortage of food in the Somali-run camps combined to convince at least some of the Ogaden's former inhabitants to the area where they had once lived.

Not all the 60,000 to 80,000 people now dependent on government handouts and living in the camps set up by the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission across the Ogaden are war returnees. There are also many victims of the drought afflicting all East Africa, some Somali nomads and sedentary Oromos.

Relief officials admit they do not know precisely how many in the camps are drought victims and how many are war returnees from Somalia or the Ogaden bush. But they say the current influx into the camps contains many of the latter and they expect the problem to grow worse as the Ethiopian Army extends its control over the Ogaden countryside.

There is another problem, however, also of growing concern to the Ethiopians and outside relief agency officials. This is a trend among the Ogaden's mostly Somali nomadic inhabitants to travel from camp to camp back and forth across the border, taking handouts from first one government and then the other while pursuing their normal peripatetic way of life.

"We are witnessing a new phenomenon -- the modern, professional nomad," remarked one international agency official.

"The situation is full of ambiguities," said a local resident of Jijiga, a main town just to the north of the Ogaden proper. "There is no doubt that some really need help. But others are just taking advantage of the free food as soon as things get a little tough."

While this may well be true, even the skeptics do not contest that the war and seemingly perpetual drought in the Ogaden have taken a heavy toll on human and animal life. With the rainy season about over, there is little more than a dusting of green vegetation and the river beds are already dry.

The travails visited on the people of this disputed territory during the past seven years of war and drought seem well summed up in the recent life history of Habib Aden, a 44-year-old Somali-speaking Oromo who once lived as a fairly prosperous peasant in the highlands just north of Jijiga and now is a ward of that town's biggest displaced persons camp.

A few years back, Aden had 34 cattle. But he lost nine of them to Somalis raiding into the highlands, a time-honored practice of many nomads in the region.

Next, he lost 11 more when the Somali Army came deep into the Ethiopian highlands in mid-1977. These Somalis also forced him to reveal where he had stored his grain reserves -- at the bottom of a well -- and made away with all 13,000 pounds.

Finally the drought of this past year wiped out the remainder of his dwindling herd as well as one of his five children.

Now Aden is at the end of all his reserves, living in one of the hundreds of squat reed-matted huts dotting the outskirts of Jijiga waiting for forces beyond his control to decide his fate.