MUGULAMA, MOZAMBIQUE -- Among the mud huts sheltering thousands of peasants displaced by Mozambique's 15-year-old civil war, the talk is of going home.
"Corn, cassava, beans -- food was never scarce in our land," said Afonso Napota, 46, a chief who led his 700 followers half naked and exhausted into this shattered central Mozambican town last month from their home area of Muasiwa.
At the government's feeding station here food is scarce, and international aid agencies are asking why the peasants should be displaced from the areas where they were self-supporting.
Chief Napota and his people, along with tens of thousands of other peasants, were driven into already overpopulated government centers by an army offensive against strongholds of the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) rebel movement.
Mugulama, 1,000 miles north of Mozambique's capital, Maputo, already had become a symbol of the human cost of a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and sent at least 1 million people fleeing to neighboring countries.
In 1988, a Renamo battalion captured the town and came to dominate much of the central Zambezia Province -- site of magnificent farms when this was a Portuguese colony.
The new arrivals to Mugulama are called the "recuperated," for until recently they formed the rebels' civilian base. Now the army, in a bid to strengthen the hand of President Joaquim Chissano's Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) government at peace talks in Rome, is rounding them up, ostensibly to expose the guerrillas they shield.
The army's offensive is aided by troops from neighboring Zimbabwe. Renamo cited the renewed attacks to justify its boycott of a third round of the peace talks, which had been scheduled last month. Western diplomats say the talks may resume in late October.
Military success in the countryside has come at a critical time for the Chissano government, which in addition to encouraging peace talks has made radical political changes, aimed at replacing the 15-year-old, one-party state with a multi-party democracy.
The national People's Assembly opened an extraordinary session Thursday in Maputo to approve a new liberal constitution and bills legalizing opposition parties and direct elections by secret ballot.
The government, as part of its campaign to establish pockets of control, recaptured Mugulama and the surrounding area in December. Residents then were moved 30 miles away as the rebels retook the town, and then brought back again in January when the army regained control of the ravaged area.
Two months later, aid agencies were called in because 20 to 30 people were dying of starvation each day.
A six-month intensive feeding campaign directed by World Vision has cut sharply the death rate among the 30,000 housed here, but tents are still filled with hundreds of children and adults with the sickly red hair, shriveled arms and swollen legs of severe malnutrition.
The story of Mugulama is being repeated throughout Zambezia Province, the nation's most fertile and populous region, where the number of people threatened by famine is rapidly approaching 1 million.
Some peasants said they were pleased to be free of the rebels, to whom each homestead had to donate at least a quart of flour each week. "When Renamo first came in 1985, a lot of people wanted to fight back," said Pinto Simone, 35, father of three. "But they had arms. They were a force the people could not resist."
Other villagers complained that government troops had burned their homes, and they complained that they had ample food supplies at home, while in Mugulama they were completely dependent on small rations of corn, beans and oil.
Chief Napota said governmental militia forces told him to march his army to Mugulama from their home area of Muasiwa on Sept. 13, about two weeks after the rebels abandoned positions they had held for five years. "They say we can return to Muasiwa after everyone comes to present themselves to the government of Frelimo."
The influx of peasants from former rebel zones is overwhelming the scattered camps set up across the province by Mozambican and international aid agencies. A $136 million United Nations emergency appeal in April was based on 429,000 being displaced in Zambezia. Government and foreign aid workers put the current number at over 900,000.
Several aid officials, who refused to be named, said there was little international support for airlifting food to civilians who, although facing severe shortages of salt, clothes and oil, could feed themselves if left on their farms.
"This is increasingly a war over people, with each side fighting to control more civilians than the other," said one official. "From the point of nutrition, it would be better for the people if they were allowed to stay at home."