By the time you read this article, Bezuayhe Tesema, a 2-year-old wisp of skin and bones, is certainly dead.

When I saw her at the Zwi Hamusit "shelter" late last month, Bezuayhe weighed less than 9 1/2 pounds and was only 24 inches long. The average healthy American baby usually reaches that weight a month or two after birth and would be three times her weight by age 2.

Suffering from pneumonia, often one of the harbingers of death in childhood malnutrition, Bezuayhe had lost more than 10 ounces since her last weighing two months before. Her tiny ribs protruded against her shriveled skin; her arms were like toothpicks. Flies covered her eyes and almost as much of Bezuayhe's body as her ragged clothes. They also crawled in the cup of milk she was too weak to drink, despite her mother's pleading efforts.

Nutritionist Birtukan Metefiria, of the World Vision International relief team, made it clear that life was slipping away.

Bezuayhe was simply one of the worst cases of malnutrition I saw during a four-day tour of several relief centers here in northern Ethiopia, where tens of thousands of people, mainly women and children, face starvation in one of Africa's worst famines.

She was one of 84 severely malnourished children at the makeshift camp receiving "intensive" feeding in an effort to keep them alive, according to Deneke Wayu, a health assistant for World Vision, a voluntary relief organization headquartered in Monrovia, Calif.

Another 384 children were receiving "supplementary" feeding for a less critical state of malnutrition. Children are put on the intensive feeding program if the circumference of their arms is five inches or less.

Most of the children under 5 in the camp were classified as malnourished, meaning their height and weight are less than 80 percent of the norm.

The situation here at Zwi Hamusit could well be a forerunner of widespread starvation unless massive international food and transportation assistance are provided soon. So far, the food-rich countries of the world have been slow in reacting to repeated Ethiopian warnings that a disaster could be in the offing.

The United States government, despite a tradition of humanitarian aid without political considerations, has virtually turned its back on the starving Ethiopians because of their government's strong ties to the Soviet Union.

Ethiopia, although making efforts to organize drought relief, has been slow in arranging transportation and sometimes inefficient in providing available food to the hungry.

If governments continue to hesitate or debate the merits of assistance, however, it seems certain that tens of thousands of Ethiopian children will not live until the next harvest in November. The crisis period is expected to be in October, when people will need more energy to start bringing in the food.

Some starvation is common in Ethiopia, where pockets of famine are an enduring part of life even in years of fair harvests. However, poor rains for two years followed by a disastrous 60 percent decline in precipitation in many of the northern areas last year have made the situation critical.

In a society that normally lives on the margin, drought can push it over the edge.

The burial ground at Zwi Hamusit shows part of the toll so far. Each grave on the hillside is marked by a small pile of stones. The piles are very close together, indicating that most of the deaths have been infants or young children. Tegegne Wobet, a resident of the camp, said about 150 children had been buried there in the past two months.

The reasons for the toll were easy to discern following a walk around the camp, which is 52 miles from the provincial capital of Gonder but almost a full day's trip by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The dusty, parched camp was set up by the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission with the assistance of World Vision, but it was closed this month because of a guerrilla attack and lack of adequate water resources and supply routes. On an almost treeless plain at 6,500 feet altitude, the camp was one of only two shelters where people living too far from food distribution points were able to settle and receive regular relief supplies.

Many families split up, with some staying at the shelters and others remaining in their highlands villages, so there would be fewer people sharing the meager supplies. What happens to the children left behind, Deneke, the World Vision health assistant, was asked.

"Nobody knows," he responded glumly.

Last month more than 2,000 people were living in Zwi Hamusit in primitive squalor, with a few sticks shaped as a hut for shelter, no sanitary facilities, limited water and little food, because the only means of supply, a Twin Otter turboprop plane owned by World Vision, was grounded awaiting spare parts from Canada.

Because food was running out, each person was limited to one cup of grain a day. Too little to grind, it was simply roasted, a method that makes it almost indigestible for undernourished children.

Although he minimizes the possibility of mass deaths, Maj. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, the head of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said he fears that unless international assistance for the transportation problems is provided soon, thousands of people will stream out of the mountains seeking food. "It will take years to rehabilitate them," he said.

With the expected onset of the rains by the end of the month, there were fears that the camps would become centers of epidemics. People were deemed to be better off remaining in their villages and walking out several days once a month to get food at distribution centers, if it can be provided.

After two days of unseasonable rain last month, measles and dysentery swept the shelter at Zwi Hamusit and 10 children died in a week. Seven partially dug wells were destroyed.

The only remaining shelter is at Ibnet, south of Zwi Hamusit, and most of the 5,000 population there last month also has returned to the bush, leaving only about 800 residents.

Although the two sites are 50 miles apart, it takes three hours to drive the distance in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

They are separated by the Balesa Mountains, whose eerie shapes could be right out of a Hollywood western if it were not for the abject poverty of the people.

The name has a touch of irony: In Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia, balesa is a special word for the apple tree in the Garden of Eden. It is hard to imagine any place further removed from paradise than Zwi Hamusit and Ibnet.

A report by Dr. Paul Shears, of the British relief organization Oxfam, outlined the deterioration in nutrition among children at Ibnet between March and May. By May, 12 percent of the children were severely malnourished and 33 percent were moderately malnourished. The corresponding figures in a March survey had been 3 percent and 20 percent.

Shears said the cause of the deterioration was simple: regardless of size, families were given 25 kilograms, or 55 pounds, of grain a month because, without scales, it was easier to divide a 100-kilogram sack into four parts rather than provide each person with the recommended 15 kilos that results in a 1,750-calorie standard daily subsistence diet. A family of four receiving 55 pounds a month would only be getting 750 calories a day per person.

"The situation has deteriorated because of a lack of objective assessment or planning and of relatively inexperienced staff at the field level," Shears said in his report.

It is apparent that the badly stretched Relief and Rehabilitation Commission does not have enough trained personnel in the field to cope.

The director of the Ibnet center is a man of 22 who was equipped with reams of statistics but seemed oblivious to the fact that many people had been waiting three days for food distribution. Grain was stored in the open, subject to rot with the oncoming rains, while bags of Soviet cement dated 1971 were kept in a warehouse.

"What they give us is not enough," one recipient with a family of seven said.

Those arriving at the shelter often said they had to sell their oxen and eat their seeds to survive--thus compounding the disaster for the next season. If they did not sell their cattle, however, the animals would die for lack of grazing before the next rains.

So far, the government has not managed to get seeds and implements to many of the people in advance of the planting season next month.

A man waiting for food distribution said it takes "two days for the strong, three days for the weak" to walk from his village to Ibnet. About two more days will have to be added after the rains because people will no longer be able to ford the rivers.

At the current pace of distribution it will take half a month of walking and waiting for people to get a month's food supply.

The U.N. Disaster Relief Office has appealed for trucks and the use of aircraft capable of landing and taking off on short airstrips to speed distribution. So far, however, there has been no response to the appeals for transportation assistance.

"The only thing to do is to get people out of the camps, because if they stay, they will die," said nurse Vivian Walden of Danish Church Aid before the number of people at Ibnet was reduced to the more manageable total of 800.

Walden said 26 of the 115 children in the intensive feeding center had died. Asked how many had died outside the center, she said, "I don't know but certainly more. We live near a church and there are funerals every day. I've stopped counting." Children are most endangered because they are the weakest, Walden said. Often the most at risk is the second youngest child in a family, since he or she is no longer being breast-fed.

Under current conditions at the camp, Walden said, "Each family will lose one or two children."

Children in supplementary feeding programs receive fafa, a mixture of grain, milk, vitamins and minerals intended to be eaten as porridge. But families are so short of grain that they often use the fafa to make the pancake, called injera, that is the staple of the Ethiopian diet.

In that form it is difficult for malnourished children to digest and impossible for infants to get enough calories. In addition, it means the child's ration is being shared with adults.

In front of a typical hut, a woman was cooking five fafa pancakes over her dung-fueled fire to feed her family of seven for the entire day. She said they never had meat. A sauce to eat with the injera was being prepared with "burberrie," a hot spice, that she had bought in exchange for some grain.

The people were lucky in one sense since water was trucked in from a nearby river. Often village women spend half the day walking to get water. But there was only enough for one to two gallons a day per person, far less than recommended subsistence level in refugee camps.

In Africa it is rare to hear infants cry because of the attention they get from their mothers, but in Ibnet the sound of wailing, hungry children could be heard everywhere.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast in the village of Quallisa, people were much healthier, according to Anne O'Mahony, a nurse for the Irish relief agency Concern.

By staying in their village they have maintained their independence and thus do not have the defeated looks of those in Ibnet, she said. The people have terraced many of the fields to prevent erosion under a government-run food-for-work program in which they get 6.6 pounds of food for each day worked.

Everywhere in Gondar province, there are plowed, terraced but bone-dry fields awaiting the rains for planting, a testament to humanity's eternal hope that next year will be better.

There are three distribution centers for food north of Gonder, the provincial capital.

At Amba Giyorgis, 25 miles from Gonder, Abahoy Aduna and his two children would wait three days for their 88 pounds of food to take back to his wife and two other children, a two-day walk away.

The need to get food overrides development plans, so Abahoy was missing his literacy classes and his children were absent from the school, only recently provided.

Asked about his possessions, he shrugged and answered that he had no food, no seeds, no oxen, no money and no clothes but the ragged shirt and pants he was wearing. He pointed proudly, however, to a scarf his daughter had made.

Farther north in Debark, Aselef Fanta hoisted a 55-pound sack of grain onto her back and started to set off on a four-day trek into the mountains to bring food to her three children.

She said she was 50 but, shriveled and dressed in rags, she looked at least 70 as she bent under the weight of the sack. She was wearing one rope sandal; the other foot was bare.

She had left her three teen-age children behind in school.

"It is easy for me to bring the food because I am old and do not go to school," she said through a translator.

Her walk would be particularly arduous because she had to skirt the nearby 15,150-foot Mount Rasdajan, Africa's third highest mountain.

For the past two years her crops dried up because of the drought. She said she survives by making clothes and exchanging them for food.

As bad as the current drought is, she said it does not compare with one in 1966 and 1967.

"That was unforgettable. Many people died," she said.

That was a famine the world never even heard about. Next: Guerrillas and famine