Wilfred Ratala's 15-year-old son, John, came home from school last Thursday with a police bullet in his leg.

As his father told it, John was on his way home in Soweto when he was caught in a cross fire between police and local youths. The youths had rocks, and the police had automatic rifles and shotguns. When the incident was over, John's right leg was bleeding from a shotgun wound, and he dragged himself home.

Ratala didn't take his son to the local hospital -- "I knew he could be arrested there" -- but instead went to a local physician who treated and bandaged the wound.

"It makes me very angry, but what can I do?" asked Ratala, an insurance broker in South Africa's largest black urban community. "The police can shoot anyone they like. No one can stop them."

These are times of pain for many parents in South Africa's troubled black townships as they watch their children standing on the front line of the low-level war against the state. Some become the parents of martyrs. They can be seen at political funerals huddled on simple grass rugs, staring silently at the coffins of their children while speeches are made. Others search for children who have been detained by police for their alleged role in the unrest or who have gone into hiding one step ahead of the law.

The Detainees' Parents Support Committee, an opposition civil rights group, said it believes that more than half the 1,500 people detained since South Africa's state of emergency took effect July 21 are age 18 or under. An average of 20 parents a day stream into the committee's overcrowded office in downtown Johannesburg seeking advice and assistance in locating their children.

The families left behind often find themselves torn by conflicting emotions: agonizing fear for their children; anger, often first directed at the children, then later at the police and, ultimately, the white-minority government; and with some, a small dose of pride.

As the unrest in black townships continues, its recruits grow younger. Beauty Guduka's 11-year-old son, Fanie, left July 11 to play with friends in the craggy, rock-strewn streets of Alexandra, a black township north of Johannesburg. He has yet to return home.

His mother was visited that evening by a white police officer and a half dozen black policemen who told her the boy had been arrested for throwing rocks at police. She witnessed her son make a written confession. Four weeks later, he is still being held without bail at John Vorster Square, Johannesburg's central police jail, on charges of public violence that could net him a maximum 10-year sentence in a reformatory.

His lawyer, Krishna Naidoo, said police and judges no longer seem very interested in mitigation pleas based on the youth of a defendant. "They say outside agents are using these kids as agents of unrest," he said. "Age is not a factor to the police."

Police officials in Pretoria say the sweeping powers granted police and soldiers under the emergency decree have begun to quell the unrest that has claimed more than 500 lives in the past year in the townships. But the tough police tactics may be backfiring with parents, some of whom appear to be growing more politicized as the risks to their children increase.

"Do you think you can cooperate with the government after your kid is shot?" asked Ratala, who came to the committee's office yesterday seeking advice. "It's just impossible."

Edwin Melk said he wishes his 17-year-old son, Isaac, were just an ordinary student instead of a leader of the antiapartheid Congress of South African Students organization. Melk was asleep in his Soweto home at 3 a.m. yesterday when he heard a sharp kick at his door. Four white security policemen had come to take Isaac to jail.

"Right now, it's hard for me to know what he's fighting for," said Melk, an auto mechanic in Soweto. "I am just afraid he will miss too much school."

David Webster, a volunteer staffer at the detainees' committee, said Melk's initial reaction is not unusual. "There's a pattern that usually has three phases," he said. "First, people believe there must be some mistake. Then they get angry, and they want to know, 'Why me, and why my child?' Finally they begin to focus that anger directly against the people doing the detaining."

The committee has about 150 members, including a hard core of about 30 activists. Formed four years ago to aid parents and friends of those in detention, it too has come under scrutiny from police officials, who contend it is a front organization for radicals whose purpose it is to harass prison officials and smear the state with false accusations of torture and mistreatment. One staff worker was among the first group detained under the emergency decree.

The committee helps parents find a lawyer, trace detainees and arrange for prisoners to receive food, clothing and money. It also provides a sense of community to help ease what Webster calls "the terrible feeling of helplessness."

It cannot be of much use to those whose children have chosen to hide. Mabel Kabi said she has not seen her son, Peter, 21, a leading student activist in the East Rand township of Daveyton, for nearly three months. He fears that police are watching the house.

"I don't know where he is sleeping or what he is eating," she said. "I am not angry at him. I am just worried. I don't know where he will end up. Maybe he will end up dead."

Kabi does not belong to any political organizations. "I don't know about such things," she said. She used to ignore the police and soldiers when they drove past her house in their armored vehicles, but several children have died in Daveyton during the past year, and that, coupled with her own son's disappearance, has changed her mind.

"The bullets hit children," she said. "When the police are outside, I do not go across the street because I fear they may shoot. It isn't right."

Parents like Kabi often have an especially close relationship with their children based on African custom and on the enforced intimacy of large families living together in overcowded, matchbox houses.

When Peter is home, he sleeps in the dining room, while his two brothers and two sisters sleep in a single bedroom in a house that has only three small rooms and a kitchen.

He lives with his parents despite his age because he is still in high school -- not unusual for black youths who often start school late and have their education frequently disrupted -- and because there is a waiting list of several years for new housing here. When he marries, it is likely Peter will bring his bride to live here as well.

Beauty Guduka, who speaks almost no English, said she does not understand what has happened to her 11-year-old son. Each afternoon as the sun begins to fall behind the haze of the township, she walks a mile to the St. Engenas Zion Christian Church where she prays quietly for his release.

The church claims 3 million members and is one of South Africa's most conservative. Its leader presented President P.W. Botha with a Bible earlier this year. The arrest of Guduka's son has made this particular congregation begin to reconsider. The pastor, Vincent Kgatla, calls her plight "a terrible, terrible thing."

Diliza Matshoba, a field organizer for the South African Council of Churches, said many parents start out like Guduka. "They are generally not very educated or politically conscious," he said. As the unrest continues, he added, "parents have got no alternative but to get more and more involved."