Antonio Saraiva Arrais lived behind barred windows, steel doors and seven-foot walls. He changed his car every two weeks, his telephone every four months, and only ventured into his quiet Rio neighborhood surrounded by armed guards.

"We get used to the fear," Saraiva, 37, said last August. "But it's true that sometimes late at night I cry because it's such a said situation."

Last month, Saraiva left his guards at home. He drove only 200 yards before a car pulled up and a passenger emptied a shotgun in his face.

Saraiva was not killed because of his profession -- he sold aluminum cooking pots -- he was killed because of his name.

For 32 years, the Saraivas and the Alencars have been killing each other, trying to win political control over Exu, a remote town of Brazil's dusty northeastern interior. In the last five months, however, this rural family feud unexpectedly has boiled up out of the backlands and left nine dead in Brazil's cosmopolitan coastal cities.

Saraiva's murder in Rio shattered a "moral nonaggression pact" negotiated in Exu by Salvador's archbishop, Dom Avelar Brandao Vilela, and signed before national television cameras by the chiefs of the feuding clans -- the Alencars, the Saraivas and their allies the Sampaios. But the latest assassination seems to show that neither the church nor television can erase the centuries-old penchant in the rural northeast for settling scores in blood.

Indeed, after the latest ambushes, Rio's major daily condemned "this national disgrace" as "a folklore show specifically aimed at scholars of the lost social and political customs of the northeast."

Cut off from the coast by 380 miles of scrubland, Exu has no paved access roads, one telephone and two cemeteries. Set in the foot-hills of an arid mesa, the town itself has only 5,000 residents, while another 28,000 live nearby, growing corn, cotton and castor beans.

It was in these prosaic surroundings that love and passion combined in 1949 to trigger a vendetta that since has taken 30 lives.

Unhappily married to an Alencar, Maria Monteiro fell in love with a Sampaio. The couple moved in together, and tried to get rid of her husband by feeding him strychinine. The attempt failed and the jilted husband sued for divorce, sending his lawyer to Maria with the legal papers. Maria's lover forced the lawyer to eat the legal documents and wash them down with his urine.

Several days later, the first Sampaio was gunned down in Exu's main square. In turn the mayor, an Alencar, was shot dead. Dom Avelar Brandao, at the time a parish priest, made his first pilgrimage to Exu to forge the first truce.

For the next 25 years, the vendeta flickered on and off until the 1976 election, when a Saraiva-Sampaio coalition challenged Alencar control of the town hall. The improverished region's political plum, the mayor's office, controls a $280,000 budget and 300 patronage jobs.

Of the 12 officials elected that year, the mayor and two city councilmen were shot dead. Six city councilmen resigned, and the council no longer meets for lack of a quorum.The vice mayor had a nervous breakdown and refused to take office, and the new mayor will only leave his ranch with an escort of five military policemen.

"The ways things are going, there isn't going to be anyone left to run the town," Mayor Jose Peixoto Alencar commented recently.

But despite the mayor's apparent solicitude, his son is a prime suspect in three murders.

Most recently, on the night of July 20, Manoel Liborio Saraiva, 25, was shotgunned to death while driving out of town with a moving van full of household goods. Saraiva's pregnant wife survived the ambush and identified the mayor's son as one of the attackers.

Indeed, before Antonio Saraiva died in Rio, he said of Exu's mayor: "Until he stops ordering his enemies killed, a lot of blood is going to flow in the struggle for political power. Everyone knows the town hall is a nest of bandits and the employes are hired gunmen."

Across the battle lines, Teresina Aires Alencar said: "Many who do not know us think we are bandits and murderers, but the truth is the opposite; they are the bandits and murderers." Alencar is the widow of the mayor assassinated in 1978 and like many partisans in the vendetta she avoids pronouncing the name of her adversaries.

In Brazil's African-spiritist pantheon, "Exu" is the name of the Devil, and, perhaps as a measure of the obstinacy of the townspeople, a referendum to select a new name was voted down.

As the blood feud passes from one generation to the next, terrified residents flee Exu, often without leaving forwarding addresses. In one case, Antonio Saraiva sold his land and cattle in 1973 and moved to Rio, where he became the patriarch of a colony of 4,000 Saraivas. Exu refugees also live in Brasilia, Recife and Sao Paulo.

But other Exu residents say they are trapped by the violence. Few outsiders show interest in Exu real estate.

"Really, I just want to get out of here," said Jussie Sampaio Peixoto. "I haven't left because I can't find anyone to buy my ranch.

"The day a buyer comes, I'll give it away for half the price," said Sampaio, who lives almost as a recluse on his ranch after being ambushed and shot in the mouth in 1978.

Sampaio is one of the few lucky survivors. Using Colts, Lugers, carbines, shotguns and Pazan submachine guns, the backlanders are good shots. To date, there have been only 17 nonfatal attacks.

Hoping to slow the slaughter, government authorities recently banned the sale of liquor in Exu and stationed military police on all access roads with orders to search passing cars for weapons.

In the spiritual sphere, Dom Helder Camara, Recife's internationally renowned archbishop, has appealed to all Christians to pray for peace in Exu.

Following the appeal, Archbishop Brandao went to the besieged city and celebrated a mass of pacification. He led the congregation in singing "White Flag," a contemporary Brazilian ballad devoted to Exu.

"White flag, my love, I'm asking peace,

For the city of Exu, I'm asking peace."

The mayor declared a holiday, and, under heavy armed guard, ventured out of his Panorama ranch to meet Archbishop Brandao.

Two days of intense negotiations followed and resulted in a historic photograph. The chubby archbishop, wearing a large gold cross on his black cassock, is flanked by swarthy men in cowboy boots and drooping mustaches, all sitting tensely on straight-backed chairs.

"I couldn't look at those people who killed my relatives," Jussie Sampaio said afterward. "But I'm all for the treaty, and I'm going to ask my relatives to keep their word."

"Under the circumstances, it was almost a miracle," the archbishop told reporters. "This time the families were really ready. Lists were drawn up of people to be killed and of gunmen to be hired."

The good news was broadcast sacross Brazil. In Rio, Antonio Saraiva decided to let his children play in the street and to leave home without armed guards.

At Saraiva's funeral this month, groups of unsmiling men could be seen talking quietly in groups, falling silent when outsiders approached. In 32 years, the courts have yet to produce a murder conviction, and it is thought that male relatives plan vengeance at these frequent family reunions.

Indeed, at the wake, a Brazilian reporter overhead a Saraive mutter: "Now there is no priest, bishop or pope that can hold us back."

On the day of Saraiva's seventh-day memorial mass, Jose Roberto Sarto Alencar, 67, a caretaker at Rio's City Park, was kidnaped. The next day his body was found with four bullet holes. Alencar left Exu in 1939 -- 10 years before the feud began.