The soldiers came just after dark on a cool evening in May, Elizabeh Magonya recalls. When they left, two of the villages that occupy this small corner of Zimbabwe's Matabeleland region in the southwest had been burned to the ground and a 50-year-old man and a 13-year-old boy had been beaten.

Not long after that, Magonya, who had long given her allegiance to the political party of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo, spent 75 cents to buy a membership card in Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's majority party. She stores it in her thatch-roofed hut, her insurance policy against the day the soldiers return.

"This is very bad, but what else can we do?" she asked, scanning the burned-out shells of what once were homes. Of her neighbors who fled, she said, "They will never come back."

A recent five-day journey through rural Matabeleland suggests that much of the region has grown as quiet as the ashes of Daluka. There are sporadic reports of encounters between soldiers and rebels, but few claims of widespread killings such as those that took hundreds of civilian lives earlier this year in what the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference branded a government-sponsored "reign of terror."

The North Korean-trained 5th Brigade, the elite Army unit that many here blamed for most of the deaths, was withdrawn from most of the area in late July.

Supplies of food and other goods, cut off from dozens of remote villages for months because of rebel activities and government curfews and roadblocks, have returned. Food relief aid, from government and international sources, has also begun to trickle into this parched, drought-stricken area.

But it is an uneasy peace, marked by fear, fatalism and uncertainty. The scars of the government's eight-month campaign against the rebels are visible everywhere--from the ruins of burned-out villages to reports of dozens of pregnant teen-agers raped by soldiers earlier in the year. They raise the possibility that the predominantly Ndebele-speaking people of the region could become a disaffected minority that could haunt this newly independent nation for decades.

Faced with violence--first from Army deserters, many of them former guerrillas who had fought with opposition leader Nkomo before independence, later from the soldiers sent to stop them--thousands of villagers fled their homes. Many have not returned. Nkomo has appealed to his supporters not to participate in antigovernment violence, but many of the rebels are believed to be former members of his guerrilla force who fought for black-majority rule along with Mugabe's armed followers.

Across the nearby border in Botswana, Dukwe refugee camp has increased its population from 1,000 to 6,000 since the government's campaign against the rebels began in January. According to the camp's chief nurse, Agnes Mashonja, Zimbabwean refugees arrived with gunshot wounds and other injuries and often suffered from malnutrition.

Norman Zikhali, 24, has been at Dukwe since January, when he says soldiers came to Mbamba village in the Tjolotjo area.

"They said, 'You are one of the dissidents because you are supporting ZAPU,' " Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union. Zikhali said his pregnant wife was bayoneted to death by soldiers, and he has scars on his arm and forehead where he was grazed by bullets. He said he would never return home.

"If I go there, I will be killed," he said.

For those who risked staying behind, normal life came to a halt. Two provincial hospitals report a marked increase in malnutrition cases because fleeing villagers had no time to plant their crops. Thirteen children died of measles at one hosptial last month because, a doctor said, rural clinics had shut down and vaccinations ceased.

Some who stayed said they fear reprisals for criticizing the government campaign. The Rev. Hebron Wilson, a Catholic priest who last month charged that the drive amounted to genocide against the Ndebele people, has been detained twice for questioning by the Central Intelligence Organization, the government's security arm.

Another outspoken critic, Sebastian Bitu, executive secretary for Matabeleland for Nkomo's party, said he was detained twice last year and again for five days in May.

"Whoever comments becomes a target," said Bitu. "Government has got all the means--police, Army--and we cannot protect ourselves."

There were widespread reports of villagers, especially children, being hauled off by members of the government's youth brigades to all-night meetings, where they were required to sit through hours of political indoctrination and denounce Nkomo. The youth brigades were withdrawn from the region in July with the 5th Brigade, and their activities were denounced recently by Maurice Nyagumbo, organizing secretary of the majority Zimbabwe African National Union. But there remain the thousands of new ZANU membership cards, purchased by frightened former followers of Nkomo's party who say they need the cards in some villages to buy groceries or ride buses.

No one knows the exact number of civilians killed here this year, nor can anyone say for certain how many were killed by soldiers and how many by rebels. Indeed, the line between the two often seems blurred. They often wear similar uniforms and carry identical weapons, and there are many reports of armed men who came to villages by night as rebels and returned the next day as government soldiers.

The Catholic Church's Commission on Peace and Justice, which has monitored the violence, has firm evidence of 469 civilian deaths, "for the most part by government soldiers," said commission chairman Michael Auret, who said he believes the actual death total is far higher. A provincial doctor, who has been in the region since the campaign began but who would not allow his name to be used for fear of expulsion, said his own "conservative" estimate was 3,000.

The government has issued no statistics since early in the year when it charged that the Army deserters it labels "dissidents" had killed nearly 150 civilians. Prime Minister Mugabe has justified the Army crackdown as necessary to destroy forces that had intended to destroy his government. Mugabe said last month in an interview that he regretted "a few cases" in which innocent civilians may have been mistreated or injured and that he had appointed a committee, consisting of a lawyer and members of the armed forces and police, to investigate the antirebel campaign.

Zimbabwean officials have alleged that rebels have used Dukwe camp as their military base, a charge that camp officials and leaders of Mugabe's party at Dukwe have denied. But there is an atmosphere of fear at the camp, among both the Zimbabwean refugees, who fear Botswana may order them returned across the border, and their Botswanan hosts. Neither group would agree to be interviewed.

"We are very much afraid," said one leader of the Zimbabwe African People's Union, explaining why he would not comment. "We have no rights here, only privileges, and privileges can be taken away. When you stand behind a tree, the tree can be cut down. The Botswanan government is our tree."

There is a pattern to the incidents in Matabeleland. Members of the 5th Brigade would receive word that rebels had appeared at a particular village, usually from the villagers or from informants in neighboring areas.

Soldiers would then be dispatched, usually arriving after the rebels had left. They then often resorted to intimidation to find out where the rebels had gone, and to ensure that the villagers would not feed or house them if they returned.

"They kept asking, 'Where are the dissidents, where are the dissidents?' " said Habakuki Ncube, the 50-year-old man who said he was beaten by soldiers the night the 5th Brigade came to Daluka.

Officials at a provincial hospital reported 190 cases of injuries ranging from gunshot wounds to fractured arms and ribs from beatings between January and April. A doctor there also said he had examined 10 pregnant girls between the ages of 13 and 15 who said they were raped by soldiers. He said local teachers have told him there are dozens more in the area.

The number of injuries decreased in May after hospital officials reported their statistics to the government. But the doctor said he later was told by patients that the drop-off was due to soldiers warning their victims not to seek hospital aid. Since the 5th Brigade was replaced in the area by regular Army units on July 22, the doctor said, no new injuries have been reported.

Even many regular soldiers and police are contemptuous of the 5th Brigade. One policeman said his village was raided by soldiers and his own family was forced to flee.

Not all the incidents went unpunished. A Quaker relief worker south of Bulawayo, the major city in Matabeleland, said a nearby farm was raided in June by the 5th Brigade after robberies were reported in the area. People were beaten and valuables such as watches were stolen, he said.

Three weeks later, the soldiers returned, led by an officer who stood them on a platform, upbraided them in front of the crowd and made them return the watches.

"It was the first time we'd ever heard of these thugs being disciplined," the relief worker said.

Government officials have said that while scattered incidents may persist, they believe their crackdown has broken the back of the resistance movement. Others are less certain.

"There were no dissidents when they the 5th Brigade came, but there sure are now," said one hospital worker.

J. C. Dlamini, a physician who resigned as head of Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo earlier this year after the crackdown began, said the campaign had "made things much worse because we now have an absolute revulsion for this government--even those like me who worked hard for this government to be accepted. When families are wiped out, you just can't figure."