Along the rutted, potholed dirt track that is the main highway into Uganda's northwest are the burned-out remains of trucks, buses and army vehicles dictator Idi Amin waged before fleeing to exile.

More than a year later, however, a sporadic bush war continues in this remote corner of Africa, which is Amin's home province of West Nile. Ancient tribal distrust mixed with more recent political animosities has produced a climate of violence in which armed men said to be still loyal to Amin are pitted against the Ugandan Army and its Tanzanian allies.

Whether the fighting involves retributions for old injuries or attempts to wage a guerrilla struggle against the new government in Kampala is not clear. What is clear, however, is that it had brought hunger, destruction and dislocations to about half a million Ugandans who live on the Western bank of the broad, steamy Nile River that flows northward to Sudan.

Here in Amin's home province -- near the junction of the frontiers of Zaire, Sudan and Uganda -- the former dictator had his tribal and power base. Since the fighting errupted last October, the death toll in West Nile is estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000. Some official Ugandan documents talk about "indiscriminate killings, lootings, rapings" of civilians. Exact figures were impossible to obtain.

When full-scale fighting broke out in October 1978, upwards of 250,000 people fled across the neighboring borders, often leaving their crops, which had been near harvest, to rot.

More than half the people have now returned as fighting has tapered off, but many are homeless -- their huts burned, their crops gone.

All schools and most hospitals are closed in the province of 600,000 population. There is no transportation or communications.

Arua, the capital of West Nile near the Zaire frontier, is the main casualty of the war. About half the buildings in the downtown area of the city of about 10,000 have been gutted by fire and looted. There are similar scenes of destruction in Moyo, the province's second largest city just south of the Sudan border.

The Ugandan government claims that Amin loyalists invaded across both borders in early October, capturing both cities and burning and looting as they advanced.

However, a five-day tour of the area late last month -- the first extensive visit by a reporter since the province was declared off-limits in October -- revealed that the residents were mainly the victims of the Ugandan Army. Residents say soldiers often went on the rampage when they pushed out the Amin supporters, most of whom were local inhabitants rather than invaders.

Officials, often speaking in the presence of military men, make it quite clear that the people feared their own army more than the Amin forces, despite repeated threats of a new invasion.

Both sides, however, have been guilty of atrocities, according to stories filtering out now that much of the population has returned.

At the time of the 1979 liberation, West Nile was spared, because Uganda's new leaders realized the potential for vengeance. "We did not want a liberation of revenge," an official recalled, so Ugandan forces were kept out of the province, and the liberation of the area was turned over to Tanzanian troops.

With his economy hard pressed, however, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere reduced his 40,000-man force in the country gradually to 10,000 after forces replaced the Tanzanians in West Nile the trouble started, according to many residents.

Given the traditional tribal animosities, this was expected. A missionary here, the Rev. Joseph Bragotti, recalled that during Amin's rule a Ugandan told him, "When things change, not even a chicken will be left alive" in Amin's native province.

"And that's what happened last October," the priest added sadly.

West Nile residents say that harassment of the local population by the Ugandan soldiers led to the October uprising of former Amin loyalists. Some guerrillas did come across from Zaire and Sudan, but most of those involved apparently were already inside Uganda.

David Luga, chairman of the elders in Moyo, described the Ugandan Army recapture of the town: "They started shooting anything -- men, women, children, animals -- anything. For nearly a full week troops continued to kill people and burn villages."

"There was indiscriminate violence" by both the Army and the guerrillas, said David Vogelsanger of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who recently set up an office in Arua.

One Catholic missionary told of guerrillas killing eight Ugandan soldiers with bows and arrows in Amin's home town of Koboko during the height of the fighting. The bodies were buried upright only to the waist, leaving the corpes to be eaten by vultures and wild animals.

Another missionary told of a mother and her nine children being killed by Ugandan soldiers in the Nile village of Pagirinya Oct. 16 after failing to provide money demanded by the troops.

The father, left for dead under the bodies of his children, escaped to tell the horror story to the Rev. Jovinale Gale at Pakelle Mission east of the Nile. Father gale finally entered the abandoned village a month later when he felt it was safe and buried the bones, the only remains of the victims.

That incident was part of a tabulation of 70 killings late last year in the Adjumani area, outside the immediate war zone. The list, complete with names and dates of death, was compiled by seven local officials and missionaries and was sent to the government in Kampala.

Complaints of such incidents are continuing although on a reduced scale. The Tanzanians belatedly intervened to clamp down on the violence, according to some residents. The Ugandan authorities also realized they had made a mistake in turning the Army loose.

The Rev. Eugenio Magni of the Adjumani mission said that the situation had greatly improved in the last couple of months but still told of seven civilians, including four schoolboys, being killed by troops in the last two weeks.

The Verona Fathers missionaries are among the few people who have contacts with the guerrillas and there has been talk of using them as intermedaries in trying to end the sporadic fighting.

The missionaries say the guerrillas do not wish to return Amin to power. The dictator, responsible for upward of 500,000 killings during his reign of terror in the 1970s, is believed to be living in Saudi Arabia or Libya. His supporters say they simply want an end to harassment by the Ugandan Army.

The poorly armed guerrillas, estimated to number about 5,000, still control an area of perhaps 2,000 square miles stretching along the Nile and back up to the Sudan border. Some 50,000 to 70,000 people are nominally under their control in a noman's land where government troops rarely venture.

Missionaries say the residents are being harassed by the guerrillas, who are becoming increasingly desperate for food since this area of the Nile has suffered drought for several years.

Ugandan soldiers on the river in Rhino Camp said they had attacked the nearby guerrilla heartland last week but had not encountered a single person. The guerrillas and residents pull out when the troops come but return when the soldiers withdraw before dark.

"People there are ignorant," an official in Rhino Camp said. "They still use the Amin money," which was taken out of circulation more than a year ago.

The people of West Nile are caught in the middle. Some are daily commuters across the borders, reacting to rumors of attacks by one side or the other.

A drive in a United Nations vehicle along the dirt track that forms the Uganda-Zaire border shows how much the people who have fled their homes fear the Uganda Army.

The approach of the Land Rover, which the refugees mistook for an Army vehicle, caused scores of them to run across the road, technically giving them the protection of being in Zaire.

John Yumaa, a member of parliament for West Nile who accompanied the U.N. team investigating relief needs, exhorted the refugees to return to their homes. They refused, charging that the soldiers were stealing from them and harassing them. A priest recognized Amin guerrillas in the group.

Later Yumaa acknowledged that his own wife and three youngest children are still refugees in Zaire. In their case, they fear the Amin guerrillas with good reason. Two of Yumaa's relatives were not so lucky under Amin's rule.

U.N. officials estimate that about half the 250,000 refugees created last October have returned home as well as up to 60,000 persons who abandoned their homes but stayed in the country.

The return of the people has given impetus to international aid efforts. Following a visit to the area last November, Melissa Wells, the top U.N. official in Urganda, said relief was impossible at that time because "you can't provide unless you have people to help."

She is now planning to urge the world organization to launch a special appeal for upward of $3 million to provide supplementary food and materials for resettlement.

The Ugandan government, still devasted from a decade of chaos caused by Amin and his aftermath, "has no money for material assistance" for the local people, said Bwanika Bbaale, an official of the Ministry of Rehabilitation who accompanied Wells on the tour.

Much of the country is sill recovering from the ravages of the 1978-79 war in which the Tanzanian Army, aided by Ugandan exile forces, ousted Amin. Reminiscent of that war, a Tanzanian soldier in the West Nile wore a T-shirt that said, "We are chasing the dictator."

An officer, however, referring to Tanzania's current role of helping against the guerrillas, said somewhat wistfully, "We're not doing that any more."