Thousands of uprooted Rwandan refugees, many of whom say they are citizens of this turbulent country, are moving slowly into an isolated pocket of forest here to escape a repeat of the attacks unleashed against them in Uganda's southern Mbarara region a little more than a year ago.

While as many as 15,000 Rwandans are expected to be settled here by the end of December, more than 40,000 Rwandans will remain vulnerable to attacks from neighboring Ugandans in three overcrowded refugee camps where the prevailing sentiment is "fear," according to a recent report.

The persecution of the Rwandans is one more element of the violence of sharpened ethnic divisions, life-and-death political competition and a devastating civil war that continues to plague Uganda more than four years after the fall of Idi Amin.

The Rwandans first fled from persecution into southern Uganda more than two decades ago. Today they are under suspicion by many Ugandans who charge that they gained materially by acting as domestic intelligence agents for Amin's brutal eight-year rule, openly oppose the current government of President Milton Obote, sympathize with, if not support, antigovernment insurgents and are involved in cattle rustling.

Western and African diplomats and several Ugandans said that the charges cannot be applied to most of the Rwandan refugees. Moreover, they said, the allegations are a convenient mask for the precarious "scapegoat" position of the Rwandans as foreigners in a country undergoing deep social trauma, for the ethnic antagonisms toward them and for the greed that was evident by the confiscation of their homes, cattle and possessions during the coordinated attacks on Oct. 1, 1982. Some observers have said government officials were involved in the attacks.

At this new settlement recently arrived Rwandans fearfully declined to discuss last year's attacks. They said, however, that they are being robbed and harassed now by Ugandan soldiers who periodically raid the settlement.

"We have enough problems here today than to worry about the past," said Alphonse Katabarwa, one of the camp's leaders.

At the time of the interview in late October, there were approximately 4,800 men, women and children at Kyaka.

Katabarwa said since people began arriving in early September there had not been enough food or medicine to feed the camp's growing numbers adequately and take care of the many illnesses, such as dysentary, malaria and eye infections.

In addition, he added, Ugandan officials were forcibly moving destitute widows and their children from the overcrowded camps south of Mbarara, where there is food and medicine for them, up to Kyaka where there is no shelter or food allocated for them by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the organization that looks after refugees in Uganda. Forty-six widows had arrived by October whose husbands had been killed during the Amin years or last year's pogrom, Katabarwa added.

Niels Harild, an official of the U.N. refugee organization, said that a forced removal of widows and children to Kyaka was a violation of the commission's understanding with the Ugandan government and that he would "look into that and other complaints." Harild said the commission already had spoken to Ugandan officials about stopping the soldiers from raiding the Kyaka settlement.

Kyaka is a camp set in undeveloped rural forest and grassland. The Rwandans here are living in makeshift grass huts and temporary metal shelters, which have been supplied by the refugee commission.

But Harild said no solution had as yet been found for the more than 40,000 Rwandans who will be left in southern Uganda living in camps on the border with Rwanda.

The land around those camps has been badly overgrazed by what cattle were not stolen from the Rwandans, one source said, leading many of the refugees to bribe Ugandan officials so they can be transferred to Kyaka.

Many may also want to leave the camps in the south because "the most notable of the settlements' characteristics is fear" of future attacks, according to Roger P. Winter, director of the United States Committee for Refugees. Winter, who visited the camps early this year, made his assessment in a report issued by the refugee committee, which has offices in New York and Washington.

Thousands of Rwandans first fled into Uganda between 1959 and 1962 when a revolution of Hutu agriculturalists successfully overthrew the control of the country by their traditional Tutsi, cattle-rearing overlords.

"Over the years they had been encouraged to leave the camps and be absorbed in the population," said Ugandan Democratic Party chief and leader of the political opposition, Paul Ssemogerere. "It worked very well, and they were soon living on their own labor, keeping cattle and doing many different things."

According to refugee committee director Winter, Obote in 1969--during his first government--ordered the registration of all Rwandan refugees. Amin's military coup in 1971 ended the move, and the Rwandans were disposed favorably to Amin, Winter wrote. After Amin fell in 1979, there was a growth in anti-Rwandan sentiment.

When Obote returned to power in 1980 elections at the head of his Uganda People's Congress party, his government became openly anti-Rwandan, according to Winter.

The People's Congress Party officials "suspected that the bulk of these Rwandans, some of them bonafide Ugandan citizens, voted for the Democratic Party," opposition leader Ssemogerere said.

Obote, in an interview, disagreed. The "deep-seated problem" of the Rwandans came about because their community's leading members "sided with Amin's regime," they had taken over the homes of Ugandans who had fled Amin's persecution and they were engaged in cattle rustling, said Obote.

Just before the Rwandans' homes were attacked, Obote added, there was a final theft of cattle and three Ugandans were killed in the resulting clash. "There was a rise up of Ugandans against the Rwandans" as a result, Obote added.

But in his report, Winter charges that the October 1982 attacks were carried out by teams of local officials, youth wing members of Obote's People's Congress party and special police. Rwandans were killed, beaten and some of the homes destroyed, said Winter.