RORA, ETHIOPIA -- Her breasts are full of milk, her babies are fat and her hut is stocked with food labeled "Furnished by the People of the United States of America."

Kadija Mohammed Omer, a mother of five, lives in the hard-scrabble highlands of Eritrea, a region controlled by rebels.

Drought is a given in her life. It hasn't rained properly here in four years. In that time, her husband hasn't been able to raise a decent crop. Outside her dirt-floor hut, her babies play in a dusty moonscape -- rocks, mountains, nothing that is green. But food aid keeps rolling in.

Asked where the food comes from, Kadija replies that it comes from the guerrillas, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. As Kadija testifies, it doesn't matter much who donates the food. Hearts and minds are won by the people who deliver it.

As long as the EPLF holds these hills and the rebels can truck in food donated by the West and funneled through bordering Sudan, Kadija and her family are famine-proof. As one might suspect, she and her neighbors have only good things to say about the EPLF.

Here, where rebels hold the mountains and the government holds the towns, donated food stands alongside the Kalashnikov rifle, the land mine and the gilded promise of a better tomorrow as a fundamental weapon of civil war.

The food weapon is wielded not only by the Eritrean rebels, who want to create an independent nation out of Ethiopia's northernmost region, but by guerrilla fighters in the bordering Tigray region, who want to overthrow Ethiopia's central government, which they describe as a puppet of the Soviet Union.

It also is used by the Ethiopian government, which refuses to negotiate with either rebel organization and repeatedly has mobilized Africa's largest standing army in attempts to crush them.

As this country descends into its second severe food shortage in four years and as hundreds of thousands of tons of donated food begin to arrive here from the conscience-stricken West, the rebels and the government are gearing up for an offensive that has become a specialty in Ethiopia.

It is the famine fight, the battle over rights to fill the stomachs of the peasantry. Part of the battle is operational -- actually delivering food by airplane, truck and camel. The other half is rhetorical -- propaganda attacks on the "enemy" for "playing politics" with food.

"He who controls roads controls food. He who controls food controls the people. This time around, the rebels in Eritrea and in Tigray are prepared to play much harder ball in terms of controlling the people," said Shun Chetty, deputy representative in bordering Sudan for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The U.N. operation in Sudan ends up feeding Ethiopians who cannot obtain food in their home country. In 1984-85, about 300,000 refugees, most of them from Eritrea and Tigray, walked west to U.N. camps in Sudan to wait out the famine.

Many of the peasants were escorted into Sudan by rebels, part of whose motivation was to keep the refugees from eating donated food delivered under the auspices of the Ethiopian government. This year the rebels have a beefed-up capacity to deliver their own donated food.

"The rebels say, 'We are at war and you aid organizations have got to understand that,' " said Chetty. "The concept of humanitarian aid cannot be divorced from war."

Drought in the past year has zeroed in on those areas of Ethiopia most affected by civil war. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the country's worst crop failures have occurred in Eritrea and Tigray. Crops in both regions, says the FAO, are considerably worse than in the famine of 1984-85. The U.N. Emergency Operation in Ethiopia estimates that 2.1 million people in the two regions are threatened with starvation.

The severity of the food shortage in the north has been well known for four months. In that time, international donors, particularly the U.S. government and the European Community, have rushed to ship in food. The early warning and the famine infrastructure left over from 1984-85 (trucks, warehouses and experienced relief workers) gave western donors a head start on the food shortage.

There appeared to be a good chance of preventing families from abandoning their farms and congregating in the kind of feeding centers where hundreds of thousands of people died last time, mostly from infectious diseases.

That head start, however, went up in smoke in late October. On a road outside the Eritrean capital of Asmara, EPLF rebels attacked a convoy of 23 U.N. trucks carrying U.S.-donated wheat to government-controlled distribution centers in Tigray. In less than an hour, all the food, enough to feed 45,000 people for a month, was burned. Also burned were $2 million worth of trucks donated by the United States -- nearly one-third of the U.N.'s fleet of long-haul food-relief vehicles. The rebels, it seemed, were playing hardball. Competing for Hearts and Minds

In the game to control the hungry, the best-known and most powerful player is the Ethiopian government. In the next nine months, the authoritarian Marxist regime in Addis Ababa will supervise distribution of the lion's share of the 1.3 million tons of donated food that the FAO says is needed for Ethiopia's drought victims.

The government has about 300,000 troops, armed with about $4 billion in Soviet weapons in the past decade, according to the State Department. In recent years, most of the Army's resources have been directed against the rebels in the north.

The second contestant, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, is a well-organized, well-armed separatist movement locked in a 26-year-old battle for independence from Ethiopia. The EPLF, with an estimated 30,000 men and women in arms, has demonstrated that it cannot be defeated militarily by the Ethiopians.

While beating back eight major government offensives in the past decade, the EPLF has dug what has proved to be an impenetrable trench across Eritrea. Behind the 217-mile-long trench, in camouflaged mountain fortresses, the EPLF has set up a skeleton government.

Avowedly Marxist until recently, EPLF leaders now say they want to create a new nation with a "mixed economy" that will not perpetuate the famine-inducing farm policies of other Marxist countries in Africa. Except for the skies, which are prowled by Ethiopia's Soviet-supplied MiGs, about 85 percent of Eritrea is controlled by the rebels.

The third participant is the Tigray People's Liberation Front. For nearly 13 years, the TPLF has been fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains of Tigray and the nearby Welo and Gondar regions. Marxist in its rhetoric, the TPLF claims to be fighting not for independence from Ethiopia, but to topple the regime in Addis Ababa, end "Soviet imperialism" and give Tigrayans a voice in a new national government. Like the Eritrean rebels, rebels in Tigray control most of the region outside of major towns.

(The rebels of Tigray and Eritrea, despite their common enemy and their similar ideologies, are not on friendly terms. They do not share weapons or food, and they sometimes shoot at each other.)

In a region like northern Ethiopia, where drought and famine are cyclical, armies alone are not enough to win the hearts and minds of peasants caught in the cross fire. So, all three contestants have created their own well-oiled, well-equipped famine relief agencies.

The Ethiopian government has the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, celebrated across Africa as the largest, most efficient government agency of its kind. In the last famine, the commission was widely praised by the United Nations and other western donors based in Addis Ababa for its speedy delivery of food in difficult circumstances with a minimum of theft.

The Eritreans have the Eritrean Relief Association and the Tigrayans have the Relief Society of Tigray. These groups, too, are praised by their patrons, western donors operating out of Sudan.

Each contestant claims that its relief arm is apolitical and independent, devoted solely to the alleviation of human suffering. They have less kind words for their rivals in relief. The rebels describe the government's commission as an instrument of Ethiopian imperialism. The government dismisses the rebels -- soldiers and relief workers alike -- as "bandits."

It is outside donors -- western governments and private relief agencies -- that legitimize the contestants' battle for peasants' hearts and minds by giving away food, trucks and medicines.

In the coming year, according to a western relief official in Sudan, the Eritrean and Tigrayan relief agencies will be given at least 80,000 tons of food. About half of it, the official said, will come from the U.S. government and half from the European Community.

The United States and the EC also are the largest suppliers of relief food for distribution in government-controlled areas.

Largely as a result of gifts during the 1984-85 famine, the Eritrean rebels now have a relief fleet of 250 large trucks and the capacity to move in 10,000 tons of food a month from Sudan. Tigrayan rebels have 170 trucks and the capacity to transport 7,000 tons of food a month.

One celebrated contributor to these fleets, among many, is Band Aid-Live Aid, the British-based relief organization that raised about $140 million through rock concerts and record sales. In both government- and rebel-held areas of northern Ethiopia, there are scores of shiny new food trucks with signs on their doors that read, "With love, from Band Aid."

There is no question that the trucks and the food they carry have saved and will save lives. Yet recent journeys in Ethiopia and rebel-held Eritrea leave little doubt that the trucks and the food also further the military aims of both the government and the rebels.

Consider Rora, this tiny highland village where four years have not provided enough rain for one crop. Lacking food, the people here would have died or moved away, perhaps drawn to government towns by the promise of something to eat.

Without the generosity of a world that is largely indifferent to their war, the rebels would have lost strategic ground. They would have lost a friendly village, a village that raises sons and daughters to be rebel fighters.

With love from Band Aid, with food from the U.S. government and with regular ministrations from the Eritrean Relief Association, the well-nourished people here say they are happy to do what they can to help continue the 26-year-old war.

"I am not fed up with the war. I am on my own land. I am in my own village. The EPLF is protecting me," said Hamed Fayid, 35, a father of four whose family has lived for four years on U.S.-donated food and who last year was given an ox by the Eritrean Relief Association.

"Participation in the struggle is not just carrying the gun," said Hamed. "If there is an engagement, it is my duty to help with the wounded and carry water."

The Bombed Field and World Opinion

There is a large bomb sticking up out of a sorghum field in rebel-held Eritrea. Farmers here explain that it was dropped a year ago in an Ethiopian air raid on their field, which is part of a large EPLF flood irrigation project.

The bomb (a dud) was aimed not at any rebel military operation, but at the donor-supported project, which attempts to harness precious water from flash floods and raise food in an area of chronic drought.

The dropping of the Soviet-made bomb supports what western relief agencies working in Eritrea have been charging for years: The Ethiopian government systematically uses its Soviet hardware to attack rebel relief convoys, kill livestock and frustrate the attempts of civilians in rebel areas to feed themselves.

Taking a reporter to photograph the bomb is how the EPLF explains its attack in October on the government-sanctioned U.N. food convoy.

In a land where civilian farmers are bombed while weeding their sorghum, EPLF leaders indignantly argue that western do-gooders should take off their blinders. The EPLF insists that the Ethiopian military was using that U.N. convoy to "camouflage" the movement of arms.

The truth of the EPLF's claim is murky. While U.N. officials in Addis Ababa insist there were no arms in or near the convoy, western relief officials in Sudan insist that the Ethiopian government often uses U.N. convoys as cover for military movement in rebel-held areas.

The Ethiopian government's record during the 1984-85 famine supports rebel accusations that the regime does not hesitate to use international food aid to further its own policies.

According to interviews last year with Tigrayan peasants, the government used food aid three years ago to lure drought victims from rebel-held areas to the feeding camps. Once there, they were forcibly "resettled" -- taken on buses and planes to southern Ethiopia, safely beyond the reach of rebel food relief.

EPLF leaders remain angry about what they consider to be a "deliberate distortion of facts" surrounding the attack on the U.N. convoy.

The general secretary of the EPLF, Isseyas Aferworki, claimed in an interview here that "the American public is being misinformed . . . . The regime {in Addis Ababa} and its policies are obstacles to ending famine in Ethiopia."

But Isseyas cannot ignore the world's perception of the attack, which was a public relations catastrophe for the rebels. It generated news coverage portraying the EPLF as callous and barbaric. The U.S. government threatened the rebels with a total cut-off in food assistance if they destroyed other relief convoys.

The bad publicity and the threat forced the rebels to bend their war policies.

Two weeks ago, the EPLF said it "would make every effort" to select out and protect relief vehicles in future attacks on government-sanctioned convoys. It also suggested that it would give advance warning to foreign relief agencies of attacks that might endanger their operations.

The Ethiopian government, too, has had to bend to world opinion and donor pressure. Although Addis Ababa does not like it, the U.S. government insists that its donated food not be handled or distributed by the Ethiopian government. Instead, it is distributed by such private relief agencies as Catholic Relief Services and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Similarly, the outcry over deception and the use of force in the government's donor-supported resettlement program reportedly has forced the regime to play it straight.

According to western aid officials in Addis Ababa, the resettlement program, which aims to move 1.6 million people from drought-affected northern highlands to fertile southern areas, is now strictly voluntary.

In the midst of war, however, donor pressure often loses out to military strategy.

While private relief agencies dole out U.S.-donated food in the north, it is the government that strictly limits the distribution sites.

While the EPLF says it will try to avoid destroying food convoys, its leaders say they have no intention of delaying an offensive that is likely to complicate the movement of food.

While the TPLF insists that it is only interested in the well-being of the people of Tigray, it has threatened to begin seizing food convoys unless the government cancels its resettlement scheme.

A 'Food Truce' and the Needs of War

At night in the rebel-held mountains of Eritrea, the tortuous dirt roads are crowded with donated, late-model Mercedes trucks hauling in donated food from Sudan. The trucks travel only at night, when they are invisible to Ethiopian aircraft. At dawn, drivers hide their rigs beneath giant acacia trees.

It is an inefficient way to address famine. But the Eritrean rebels have been doing it for years, and they say that, given enough outside donations, they can meet the needs of their people.

Proposals for a "food truce" have never gone very far in northern Ethiopia. A formal agreement allowing unrestricted passage of humanitarian convoys between government and rebel areas would force Ethiopia to acknowledge officially that it is stalemated in civil wars it cannot win.

Likewise, the rebels would have to be convinced that the government was not using relief convoys as cover for its military designs. Such a belief, according to rebel leaders, would be naive.

For both sides, a glut of relief food could upset war strategy. If relief food moved too freely, carefully cultivated loyalties could be lost.

Severed of its political strings, relief food buys no one's allegiance. It just keeps people from dying.