The dismal odyssey of the young Ethiopian mother began last spring with a false promise of free food.

That promise lured Letehawaria Gebre Yessus into a trip that took her from the highlands of northern Ethiopia to a swampy resettlement camp in its southwestern corner. Late in February, after an escape journey of three months, she found her way here to a refugee camp in the thorn-tree badlands of eastern Sudan.

En route, she said, she was forced by Ethiopian soldiers to abandon her two children, and she watched her husband die of disease in a crowded transit camp. After fleeing Ethiopia, she said, she was robbed, beaten, raped and held as a slave by Sudanese rebels.

The woman's story, which she quietly told in the shade of a refugee tent, echoes those of many of the nearly 1,000 Ethiopian refugees here who have fled the resettlement program that the Ethiopian government insists is the only possible long-term solution to chronic famine in the country.

Nearly 600,000 northern Ethiopians have been moved south by the program since November 1984. When it began, Tamrat Kebede, the Ethiopian official responsible for designing the program, said in an interview in Addis Ababa that the resettlement would be voluntary, that families would not be split and that each family would be given about five acres of land to farm privately.

Tamrat said then that these conditions would guarantee the human rights and self-respect of resettled famine victims, and would ensure needed grass-roots support.

But interviews here with escapees from resettlement camps, along with the reports of researchers and relief workers who have conducted random surveys among refugees, indicate that the Ethiopian government has widely violated and ignored its preset conditions.

As Ethiopia's famine abates, the resettlement program continues, with a goal of moving 1.5 million people by the end of this year. The program has become by far the most contentious issue between Marxist Ethiopia and the western governments and private relief organizations that supply most of its famine assistance.

The Ethiopian government temporarily suspended the resettlement program at the end of last month in response to criticism from western aid donors. The suspension, to last an indefinite period, was ordered "for a period of consolidation and to digest what they have already done," a senior western aid official in Addis Ababa told United Press International last weekend.

According to western aid officials in the Ethiopian capital, the final 1,000 resettlers arrived in Asosa from Welo Province in the last week of February. Ethiopian government officials, while not officially announcing the suspension, said last week that internal and external criticism has forced a government review of resettlement. But western aid officials say that it was primarily outside donor criticism that forced the suspension.

While Italy and Canada have given money specifically to support resettlement, most other donors have expressed reservations. The United States, by far the largest food donor, has condemned the program as a diversion of resources better spent in the famine-affected north. A French-based relief agency, Doctors Without Borders, was expelled from Ethiopia last fall for charging that up to 100,000 persons had died as a result of resettlement.

Most critics of resettlement contend that it has a political, not a humanitarian, aim: to depopulate the rebel-dominated north, where the government has been unable for nearly a quarter century to impose military control.

The Ethiopian government has admitted to some abuses in the program by "overzealous local officials." But it maintains that the idea of moving famine victims from the drought-razed northern highlands to the fertile southwestern lowlands is sound. The Soviet-supported rulers have dismissed most criticism of resettlement as motivated by western, anti-Marxist ideology disguised as humanitarian concern. At the same time, the Ethiopian government strictly restricts outside access to resettlement areas.

The stories told here in this two-month-old refugee camp come not from outsiders but from peasant farmers from the Welo and Tigray regions of northern Ethiopia. In 13 separate interviews here, they told a consistent story, details of which are supported by earlier interviews in Ethiopia with relief officials.

Most of the refugees said they were "tricked" into gathering in northern villages by government-circulated promises that the "Red Cross" would be distributing free food. Many left their children behind, thinking that they would soon be coming back home. However, they were surrounded by Ethiopian soldiers and loaded onto buses or helicopters bound for transit camps. Several refugees said they saw soldiers shoot and kill farmers who tried to run away.

The settlers described several weeks in transit camps, with shortages of food, water and medical care, as well as many deaths from illness. They then were packed into Soviet Antonov transport planes or buses for the 600- to 700-mile journey south to resettlement sites near Asosa and Gambela. Several said that people who became critically ill during the bus ride south were hauled out of the buses and abandoned at roadsides.

In Gambela and Asosa, lowland areas where more than 145,000 people have been resettled in scores of new villages in the past 16 months, the refugees said there were chronic shortages of food, clothes and shelter. Many said they became ill with malaria, a disease they had no experience with in the northern highlands.

Party cadre and soldiers, the refugees said, forced the settlers to clear land and build houses, enforcing discipline by beating and imprisoning those who refused to work. In Asosa and Gambela, refugees said they were forced to work on cooperative farms and were allowed little time to tend their small gardens.

Gebre Selassie, 24, a political refugee here who said he worked in Asosa for the Ethiopian government as a medical assistant, supported the accounts of many refugees by saying that the major health problem in the camps was malnutrition.

"Most of the people in the camps were sick because of hunger. They were not given enough food," said Gebre Selassie. He said most settlers were given about a pound of corn a day at Asosa, an amount nutritionists say is insufficient to maintain body weight while doing heavy work.

Refugees here said they were warned frequently by party cadre against trying to escape from the camps. In weekly "political education" meetings, the cadre warned settlers of Ethiopian soldiers who would shoot them, of wild animals in nearby jungles and of allegedly cannibalistic tribesmen across the nearby Sudanese border.

Yet, between last November and the first of this year, the refugees estimate that about 3,000 Ethiopians tried to escape from Gambela and Asosa. They said many were captured inside the border and that some drowned trying to cross rivers into Sudan.

Letehawaria, the 27-year-old mother of two whose husband died in transit before reaching Gambela, was one of several hundred women captured by Sudanese rebel soldiers, believed by relief officials here to belong to the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which controls nearby areas of southern Sudan.

According to several of these women who arrived here last month, the Sudanese rebel soldiers raped them and forced them to live for a month as slaves in Sudanese villages. Relief officials believe these men were members of the Dinka tribe, which dominates that region of Sudan.

The SPLA, which receives arms and funding from the Ethiopian government, also extorted money from many of the fleeing Ethiopians, stole their clothes and forced some of them back to resettlement camps, the refugees said.

Those who eluded or later escaped the rebel soldiers have been brought here to Ed Damazin by the Sudanese military. They are temporarily under the care of the Fellowship for African Relief, a small Canadian relief agency. The U.N. refugee commission in Khartoum says many of them soon will be transported north and allowed to return across the border into rebel-held areas of Ethiopia.

Like many of his fellow resettlement escapees, Yibran Alemayeh, 54, said he wants to find his wife and six children. He said soldiers rounded him up a year ago in the Tigrayan city of Adua. If he cannot find his family, Yibran says he will join the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which has been fighting the Ethiopian government for more than a decade.