OROTTA, ETHIOPIA -- On a bombing mission over Eritrea three years ago, Maj. Bezabih Petros was shot out of the sky. The Ethiopian pilot managed to eject from his burning aircraft and parachute to safety.

Upon landing, however, the pilot discovered that he had been transformed into a non-person.

The Ethiopian government, which has been fighting rebels in Eritrea for more than 26 years, never has acknowledged that the rebels exist. Therefore, when the pilot was captured by non-existent rebels, he, too, ceased to exist.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that rebels of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front have captured and are holding about 8,000 of these non-persons. The Ethiopian government has not tried to negotiate their release.

When the rebels unilaterally released several hundred Ethiopian prisoners of war in 1978, their homecoming was less than warm. According to an international relief official, the fortunate ones were drafted back into the Army. Others were jailed and a few were shot.

"It is terrible. Really it gets you mad. You serve your country and you want to be recognized as a prisoner of war. You want one day to go home and see your family," said Bezabih, 37, who is married and has four children.

Since April 1984, the major has been living with another captured Ethiopian officer in a tent in a rocky box-canyon deep in rebel-held territory. To pass the years, he listens to a short-wave radio, reads whatever he can find and does pushups.

Considering the vagaries of African warfare, the major can count himself lucky. Eritrean rebels captured by the Ethiopian government are jailed as common criminals. They are not allowed to send or receive mail. They also are denied access to the clothing, blankets and medicines provided by the ICRC.

In Angola, the same holds true of captured rebels of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Civil wars in Africa do not fit the rules of international conflict as spelled out in the Geneva Convention. On every side of Africa's wars, prisoners disappear through the loopholes.

According to the Geneva Convention, captured combatants are "entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights and convictions. They shall be protected against all acts of violence and reprisals. They shall have the right to correspond with their families and to receive relief."

The ICRC, the Geneva-based Swiss relief agency, is empowered by the Geneva Convention to verify that these rules are followed. ICRC representatives are supposed to be able to conduct private interviews with all prisoners of war, to inspect their quarters and to make repeat visits.

But in Africa's civil wars, where many embattled countries do not acknowledge that there is an enemy, the Red Cross is usually locked out. Strictly speaking, since there is no war, there can be no prisoners of war and the ICRC has no standing.

Lacking international authority, ICRC delegates in Africa use persuasion and moral pressure. They do what they are allowed to do.

Thus far, in Ethiopia, the ICRC has had limited success working with the Eritrean rebels and almost none working with the government.

The Eritrean rebels have allowed the Red Cross to distribute clothes, blankets and some medicines to 7,897 captured Ethiopian soldiers and officers. But thus far the rebels have not allowed the Red Cross representatives to conduct private interviews with the prisoners.

In Angola, UNITA rebels have allowed the ICRC to see some captured Angolan soldiers, according to an agency official in Geneva.

The official added that negotiations with the Ethiopian and Angolan governments for ICRC visiting rights with prisoners and for the right of prisoners to correspond with their families have gone nowhere.

Here in the rebel-held mountains of Eritrea, the rebels use captured soldiers to help build roads. One international relief official said that while the prisoners are forced to work hard, they are fed relatively well and have access to medical care.

Like all captured Ethiopian officers, Bezabih Petros is given special treatment. He does not have to do anything. He waits and wonders about his family.

"My government doesn't really give a hoot for us," said Bezabih. "POWs in Eritrea are a very big headache for the government. That is why it would prefer that we were perished."