Africa's largest tide of refugees, which for eight months flooded out of Ethiopia into Sudan at a rate of up to 4,000 people daily, has begun flowing back to the Ethiopian highlands, where relief officials say there is little food, a rekindled civil war and the likelihood that many returnees will die.

Lured by rain in Tigray Province, more than 50,000 refugees in the past month have abandoned refugee camps along the Sudanese border, pulled their children out of six-meal-a-day feeding programs and begun the three-to-four-week walk back to their farms, according to a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"This is a spontaneous thing against the advice of relief workers, who are telling these people they are not fit to make this journey, that their children will die along the way, that there is no food when they return," said Hugh Hudson, of the UNHCR office in Nairobi.

"These people always told us they did not come to Sudan to stay, only because they were desperate," Hudson said. "With the rain, they have such an overwhelming desire to get back to their land. Their instinct is to go back for plowing."

The refugees are returning to a mountainous, famine-stricken no-man's-land, control of which has been fought over for more than a decade by rebels of the Tigray People's Liberation Front and soldiers of the Ethiopian Army.

The Ethiopian military, with weapons and aircraft provided by the Soviet Union, holds the region's cities and a few major roads, but the front's guerrillas move freely through most of the countryside.

There has been scattered but intense fighting in Tigray during the past two months. Rebels claimed last month to have repelled a major Ethiopian offensive, killing 1,442 troops and shooting down a MiG25 jet fighter plane.

There was no independent confirmation of these figures. But a senior relief official in Addis Ababa said in a telephone interview that the government had begun an offensive in Tigray, adding that "security considerations" there are stalling plans to deliver food to the region for returning refugees.

The official said fighting prevented United Nations relief workers, dispatched to assess food needs for the returnees, from venturing outside of two cities in Tigray. "The security is so bad that relief people cannot go anywhere," the official said. Fighting in Tigray, along with the reluctance of the Ethiopian government to transport food into rebel-controlled areas, has limited the flow of relief aid into the region for months.

Rebels, in a statement from London, said that the food situation in Tigray is becoming increasingly desperate. The statement, which blamed the United Nations for failure to move food north from Addis Ababa, said starving peasants have begun eating dirt.

"In a subdistrict called Zawa, at least 68 people have died from this," the rebel report said. The Ethiopian government says 1.2 million Tigrayans are receiving relief food, but relief officials in Addis Ababa say it is clear that the area needs more food.

Tigrayan returnees are willing to endure the renewed fighting and the possibility of starvation, according to Hudson, because they no longer can tolerate living in Sudan.

"People think Africa is Africa, that all places are the same. That just isn't true. These Tigrayans are mostly Christians from highland, temperate country. It is just as difficult for an Ethiopian in Sudan as it is for a European. These refugee camps are a living hell for the Tigrayans," Hudson said.

Daytime temperatures in the treeless desert along the Sudanese border, where six camps sprang up during the past half year to house 235,000 Ethiopian refugees, routinely go above 110 degrees. In recent weeks there has been a string of dust storms, one of which flattened half of the tents in a camp of 20,000 refugees and destroyed six food warehouses.

Like all feeding centers crowded with sick and malnourished people, the refugee camps are rife with disease. Relief officials say there is an outbreak of cholera in Wad Kowli, a camp of about 30,000. Vitamin A deficiencies have caused an epidemic of xerophthalmia, a disease that dries up children's eyes and causes blindness. Vitamin C deficiencies cause scurvy among refugees and are responsible for large numbers of slow-healing abscesses.

Christian Tigrayans have found themselves less welcome in Moslem Sudan than their compatriots from Eritrea, many of whom are Moslem and almost all of whom are not leaving the camps. There are about 30,000 Eritreans in the camps; the rest are from Tigray.

According to refugee officials quoted last month in the Times of London, Sudanese who built tea shops for Eritreans will not do the same for Tigrayans. "These are not our people," the tradesmen were reported to have said.

"Tigrayans are in a no-win situation," said Hudson. "Normally we can assist refugees to repatriate, provide food and shelter when they return home until they can become self-sufficient. But there needs to be an agreement between governments. There is no such agreement between Sudan and Ethiopia."

When Tigrayans say they are going back, Hudson said, refugee workers give them as much food as they can carry, extra vitamins and a check-up to see if they have "a minimal survival fitness."

"Even when they are advised not to go, we are not able and not willing to physically prevent them," Hudson said. "Fathers take their children out of supplemental feedings programs. You cannot hold a child against the parents' will . . . . These people don't want to split up their families. They insist on staying together even if they have children die on their hands."

Ethiopia is now in a hiatus between the short rains of April and the long, drenching rains of July through September. Hudson said refugee officials in Sudan fear that returning Tigrayans may have nothing to eat for months, even if they do manage to plant a crop before the beginning of the long rains.

"What we fear is that back in Tigray, if they face starvation, they may well turn around and come back again," said Hudson. "They will be that much weaker; many may die. We want to see these people stronger before they leave Sudan."