High atop an arid plateau in this remote northeastern corner of Uganda, an ancient tribe of African warriors is fighting for survival against nature, governments and themselves.

The Karamojong, a fiercely independent collection of clans, have been beset by drought, lawlessness and a joint Ugandan-Kenyan military campaign last year that people here say killed between several dozen and several hundred tribesmen and seriously disrupted planting. Only a thin lifeline of emergency relief from international donors now stands between them and famine.

These warrior herdsmen have dwelled in splendid isolation in Karamoja Province for generations, passing down a proud and aggressive culture in which cattle rustling and spear throwing are among the most honored activities. Each family lives in its own fortified kraal, and men proudly bear scars on their left shoulder, one for each person killed in battle.

No government has been strong enough to curb their activities. When Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 1975 issued an edict demanding that these proudly naked warriors wear trousers or risk being shot on sight, he was derided and ignored. Amin is gone, exiled to Saudi Arabia, and Karamojong men still roam the countryside without pants.

But Karamojong defiance also threatens their survival.

Food shipments are sporadic here in part because raiders fire upon trucks and rob drivers and passengers not only of their goods and valuables but also of their clothes.

Two Ugandan businessmen were slain here in December, and an employe of the U.N. World Food Program, supplier of most of the emergency food here, last month was ambushed and shot in the arm, which subsequently had to be amputated. The incident led U.N. officials to suspend all travel by their employes in the area, a restriction lifted only early this month.

The barriers of culture and isolation that have insulated and protected the Karamojong are growing more porous.

In 1979, when Amin's government was nearing collapse, Karamojong raiders took the opportunity to pillage the government armory in the town of Moroto, making off with at least 2,000 automatic weapons. That introduced a new element and upset the delicate balance of power that had existed among the clans of Karamoja.

"They had guns, and we had spears, and they took our cows and left us hungry," said Lotiang Aldo, describing what happened in 1980, when warriors with AK47s descended upon the kraals of his Dodoth people, a subgrouping of Karamojong. "They killed many people and burned our houses."

The drought that followed that year killed about 50,000 people out of the 360,000 who dwell in these highlands. Uganda's post-Amin government, in the throes of a political crisis, was too weak and distracted to help, and western aid agencies were slow to grasp the dimensions of the emergency.

The Dodoth have since acquired guns of their own and reportedly have conducted at least five raids into neighboring Sudan in recent months. Dodoth warriors were seen early this month with automatic rifles and cattle, a sign that cross-border raids are continuing.

Various other groups of cattle marauders from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya also roam this territory. U.N. officials estimate that the total herd -- the ultimate measure of Karamojong wealth -- has been reduced by drought and raiders from 450,000 to only 150,000 during the past five years.

Uganda's various governments have generally chosen to ignore or scorn the Karamojong, an attitude reciprocated here. But the mood in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, changed to one of aggressive retribution last year after the death of Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok, the Ugandan Army chief of staff, who kept a farm near this area.

Karamojong raiders took advantage of Ojok's demise to steal his cattle, then set an ambush that reportedly killed more than 100 local militiamen pursuing them. They then melted away into neighboring Kenya.

But the Kenyan and Ugandan governments, in their first cooperative military effort since Amin's downfall, decided it was time to teach the Karamojong a lesson. They launched a joint campaign using Kenyan helicopters and Ugandan soldiers.

Fields went untended and whatever cattle the Karamojong could not hide were quickly seized, slaughtered or sold by the underfed and underpaid Ugandan military.

Thus, when a new drought struck Karamoja last year, the result was potential disaster. The Karamojong became almost totally dependent on grain shipped here on an irregular basis by aid agencies such as the World Food Program and UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund.

A team of University of Texas health researchers concluded that in one typical section of the province, 60 percent of the children below 1 year and 30 percent of those aged 1 to 5 died during the 1980 famine.

That rate has fallen dramatically since UNICEF and the World Food Program launched a supplemental feeding program for children here. But Dr. Doreen Gihanga of the district hospital in Kaabong estimates that at least 75 percent of the children in her area are seriously malnourished.

She and Dr. Cesar Forni, her Italian colleague here, say their program involves intensive feeding for about 140 of the most critically malnourished. It keeps children from dying but is too small to maintain their health, said the doctors. There is a supplemental feeding program for about 1,200 other children, but the only food available is dried corn.

"We feed them, they improve and we send them home," said Gihanga. "But there is nothing to eat there and so in one month they are back. We should keep each child here at least a month, but there are so many and so little room they can stay no more than 20 days."

Forni said the onset of famine has brought him patients with a new set of ailments, including a sharp increase in broken bones among men, who fall from high trees, where they seek leaves and fruits.

The hospital at Kaabong, built under Forni's supervision during the past three years, is one of several new facilities cushioning the Karamojong from the full impact of a new famine. Another is the resettlement camp at Kapedo, founded four years ago by John Wilson, an agricultural specialist for the British-based Oxfam relief agency.

Wilson anticipated the current drought and established his camp between two riverbeds in the more fertile eastern portion of the region. He only attracted 1,600 persons during the first three years, but following last year's crop failure the population swelled to almost 40,000, all of whom are dependent on a food-for-work program supplied by the United Nations. There are 16,000 others at a second camp in Namalu.

As at Kaabong, the only food available here is corn. The official minimum ration is seven pounds per family per week, but in fact, says Wilson, the average family of five is lucky to get three pounds.

The problem is not only the amount of food but the type. There have been no protein-rich beans, cooking oil or sugar here for nearly a year. "Giving a malnourished child only maize corn is mindless -- he can't even get it down," said Okumu Aria, a government nutritional specialist at the camp.

Shipments of beans, oil and sugar were suspended because they had what one aid worker here described as "a tendency to fall off the back of the truck." Everyone took a share, he said, from the Army to local businessmen to the drivers assigned to ferry the food north. Nonetheless, new shipments of beans are expected to begin arriving next month.

Others are afraid that the emergency programs, while saving lives, are pushing the Karamojong further from the self-sufficiency and independence they crave. "We are helping them, but we are helping kill their culture at the same time," said a troubled aid worker.