The Indians of Nicaragua have begun to return to their ancestral homes here on the banks of the Coco River, three years after they were driven away by Sandinista soldiers fighting rebel forces in this steamy wilderness.

The return, organized by the same Sandinista government that forced the Indians away in 1982, marks an indirect acknowledgement of charges that the indigenous people were abused by the Popular Sandinista Army in its eagerness to remove grassroots support for Indian insurgents backed by the United States.

For Elaria Presby, the Sandinista change of heart has meant an opportunity to bring her children back to this town on the banks of the broad waterway that has provided nourishment to the Miskito Indians as long as anyone can remember.

"We are going to live here again," she said, surveying the ruins of what was once a thriving trading town. "This is where we were born and brought up. We are not from over there."

"Over there" for Presby and her five children meant the coastal town of Puerto Cabezas since the 1982 Army clearing operation in which government troops destroyed buildings and machine-gunned livestock in the widely condemned effort to cut off rebel logistics support and manpower pools.

The Sandinista leadership, recognizing what it now calls errors in handling the Indians, has offered official apologies for the abuses. Interior Minister Tomas Borge pledged last month to grant a still undefined autonomy to the 100,000 Miskito, Sumo and Rama Indians who are the main inhabitants of the vast region of eastern Nicaragua along with 25,000 English-speaking black Creoles who live along the Caribbean coast.

As part of a cease-fire agreement with at least some of the Indian rebel leadership, the government also has begun organizing the return of Indians like Presby to their cherished villages along the river.

Borge said last month that 10,000 Indians would be back home by July 15. Actually, about 3,500 have returned so far. The government has been trucking them in by small groups, with the first arrivals assigned to clean up the devastation for the rest.

The decision to allow the return, although a source of joy for Presby and her friends, represents a gamble for the Sandinista leadership.

On the one hand, President Daniel Ortega's government is eager to erase the highly publicized blot on its human rights record caused by treatment of the Indians. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights charged last year that the Nicaraguan government had carried out widespread repression against them, and the Reagan administration frequently has cited the 1982 resettlement in its human rights criticisms of the Sandinista government.

On the other hand, the major Indian rebel leaders outside Nicaragua have rejected Borge's autonomy offer as a facade. The status of the cease-fire also remains unclear. The main rebel leader who negotiated it was killed three weeks ago in mysterious circumstances, and the two major Indian insurgent groups, Misura and Misurasata, last month announced a unity pact and pledged to fight on.

Allowing the Indian population to return to this undeveloped and hostile wilderness thus could hand the U.S.-backed insurgents a valuable network of supporters, just south of the Honduran border, with ethnic loyalties and ugly memories from 1982 to call on.

Presby's family was among more than 25,000 Indians forced out of their tribal homeland of scrubby pine forests, grasslands and steamy swamps in Nicaragua's northeastern corner. About 10,000 were taken to government resettlement camps in the interior, many herded roughly by Sandinista troops. Another 12,000 fled to refugee camps in Honduras, becoming a rebel manpower pool, and several thousand more took up residence in the regional capital of Puerto Cabezas.

Presby, 30, and her family have vowed to live out their days here on the riverbank, even though they returned to find that their little wooden house on stilts had been reduced to a pile of rotting lumber. Since their arrival Tuesday, they have been living with neighbors under a tent, swatting mosquitoes, hacking away at overgrown weeds with machetes and eating government-provided rice and beans.

But other Indians have proved more cautious. Ernesto Castro came home to Waspam to find the ruins of his little house and clean up around the rubble. But his wife and three children have remained away. They fled to Honduras in 1982 while he was taken to Puerto Cabezas, and Castro says he probably will not stay here until the situation clears up.

"I don't know very much about the agreements between the government and Honduras and Misura and all that," he said. "I don't know much about all that. We could have trouble here. What I want is to live quietly, like before."

Government records show the Waspam community had about 20,000 inhabitants before the 1982 Popular Sandinista Army operation. They were served by Roman Catholic and Moravian churches and included Chinese merchants who traded with Indians paddling in from outlying villages on the muddy river in dugout canoes.

"It was the capital of the Coco River," said Vilma Zuniga, who taught chemistry in the high school then.

Zuniga, now a government employe aiding in resettlement, spoke sitting in the shell of what had been the high school. Its concrete walls, along with those of a gasoline station, were among the few structures left standing by Army crews assigned to level the town.

After three years away, however, the returning Indians appear more bewildered than bitter about the destruction of their lives. The Indians, mostly Miskitos, traditionally have lived primitive lives, farming and fishing with few ties to the dominant Pacific Coast Nicaraguans whom they call "Spaniards." Many speak halting Spanish or none at all.

Halicio Redman Emiliano, for example, told visitors to the little village of Saupuka a few miles south of here that he had only three requests.

First, he said, villagers need weapons -- "even just a .22" -- to protect against what he said was a marauding wildcat that had killed a dog. Second, he added, the children need mosquito netting because they cannot sleep at night. Third, Emiliano requested that some soldiers come and search the area for mines. Six returning Indians were killed last week after stumbling on a mine.

If those things were done, Emiliano said, the 78 familes of Saupuka would be happy to rebuild and resume the lives they have lived for what he said was nearly forever.

"We were born here, and as you can see, we are very old," he explained. "And there used to be people even older than we."