Hassanieh Jasna, 18 months old, bespeaks the tragedy of the people and land of Chad

Sprawled listlessly on the lap of her widowed mother, she stares vacantly, her thin limbs jutting from under a soiled green smock that hides her bloated stomach. She has just eaten the only meal she will have this day.

Early death from malnutrition is common in the Sahara Desert and semi-arid Sahel regions that form more than half of this landlocked former French colony.

But, this year, what might have been just another of Chad's periodic two-year droughts is a disaster that compounds the scourge of an 18-year civil war and threatens as many as 600,000 lives among this poor country's 4 million people. Moreover, the war has intensified since June, with Libya backing one side and France and the United States backing the other.

With the introduction of new weapons, the outside involvement has improved the killing and destructive capabilities of the combatants, but has not changed the basic nature of the war. For almost a generation now, parts of six private armies representing 11 ethnic factions have stormed through every corner of Chad, from the savannas of the extreme south, green in rainy season, to the Sahara's hot and barren Tibesti mountain range on the Libyan border in the north.

Hassanieh's mother, 30-year-old Kaltouma Mamat, fearfully declined to discuss the causes of the war or to say whether she might favor the faction of warriors who come from her family's Salamat region near the Sudan border southeast of Ndjamena, the capital.

"I want peace, but what can I do?" asked Mamat with upturned palms. "Our future is in the hands of Allah."

While Chadians have coped with cyclical droughts for generations, the constant fighting has broken down the tribal and clan "extended family" traditions of sharing food to make sure everyone survives until the rain returns. "The war has disrupted too much," said Zara Gali, the 29-year-old assistant director of one of seven feeding centers for Ndjamena's thousands of hungry poor. "There are too many families that have become separated, too many people who have been killed."

Even in some of the wetter areas of southern Chad, where rainfall during the current June-October rainy season has been better than in the rest of the country, many peasant farmers have been growing food only for their own families' needs, since the war has made them reluctant to invest labor and time in cultivating crops that could be destroyed or stolen in the next round of fighting. In addition, highway robbers, claiming membership in any of 10 factions (the 11th is in control of the government), attack truck convoys traveling without military escort. The convoys are bringing emergency food deliveries into the areas hardest hit by starvation.

The United States, Western European nations and the United Nations have been flying and trucking tons of emergency food supplies into Chad since August 1982.

The shipments of sorghum, beans, flour, rice and dried milk are still being trucked into Ndjamena daily from Cameroon and Nigeria, but the supplies have begun to pile up since the recent phase of fighting disrupted distribution.

The neediest areas in the north, recently occupied by Libyan soldiers and a coalition of Chadian rebels, have been cut off from all emergency food deliveries from Ndjamena for two months. A Doctors Without Frontiers medical team had to leave the northern town of Faya Largeau just before it fell to the rebels on Aug. 10.

Hundreds of refugees from the north are now straggling south on foot into Chad's Kanem region north of Lake Chad, according to Mark Frohardt, assistant director of the doctors' organization.

"Food, medicines and medical personnel are scarce in northern Chad," Frohardt said.

In southern, eastern and central Chad, most of the dirt roads have become impassable even with the low rainfall. Food convoys and medical teams cannot reach the neediest communities, according to Frohardt and Allan Turnbull, director of CARE in Ndjamena.

A recent United Nations report on Chad called the country's situation "catastrophic" months before the fighting erupted in June.

With the war-caused breakdown in civil administration, the report continued, tuberculosis, cerebrospinal meningitis, measles and malaria "are making a strong comeback among the population weakened by war and malnutrition." Chad's grain harvest this year is expected to be 100,000 tons short of the country's subsistence needs, the report concluded.

"Food is even scarce or too expensive for a lot of the people here in Ndjamena," Frohardt commented.

In July, Doctors Without Frontiers sent medical teams into three of Ndjamena's poor neighborhoods to conduct a house-to-house examination of children.

They concluded in a report that of an estimated 55,000 children, from infants to 5-year-olds, about 37 percent, or more than 20,000, are suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition.

The situation persists despite the daily distribution of food to the capital's feeding centers by the United Nations' World Food Program.

The doctors' report recommended an increase in the amounts of food to be made available for children.

"We are allowed to come once a day and eat, but it is still not enough for the children," said Mamat about Hassanieh, her twin brother and another brother, 3."The children cry from hunger, but I have no money to feed them."

Mamat, stoical and proud, arrived in Ndjamena in December from Abeche, Chad's second largest city 400 miles east of the capital, with her three children near death from starvation.

Mamat's husband, Abdullah Jasna, had been killed in a traffic accident on the road between Ndjamena and Abeche two months before, she said.

Like most Chadian women, Mamat did not adopt her husband's name when she married.

Her husband, Mamat said, had worked intermittently during the past decade as a road repair laborer whenever the government was functioning and could pay his salary.

But government work was so unreliable, Mamat said, that her husband set up a one-man courier service, coming to Ndjamena three times a month to buy medicine for people in Abeche. He earned enough to help them live well, she said.

After his death, Mamat made beer from sorghum, but sales were not sufficient to feed her and the children. Her breast milk dried up, and the still-nursing twins began to starve. Most of the people she knew in Abeche were in the same kind of predicament she was.

The war had cut her off from her family in Salamat, south of Abeche, so she came to Ndjamana to look for her husband's brothers, who by tradition are responsible for her and her children's welfare.

But Ndjamena had been fought over and emptied of the civilian population three times between 1979 and 1982. An uncounted number of people had been killed. Her husband's brothers were nowhere to be found in this city of 200,000.

Finally, someone directed her to the government feeding center for widows with children in Ndjamena's Repos quarter, and she has been going there daily.

A total of 2,500 children are fed at the center several times a week, but only 588 severely malnourished children like Hassanieh are fed daily, said center official Gali. About 1,800 widows are fed there.

"Yes, Mamat is right," Gali said. "Once a day is not enough food for children, but we do the best we can with what we have. There are so many of them to feed."