As scores of weary, bedraggled East Timorese men trudge down from the verdant hills that surround Maliana after a month in hiding, they are asking the same anguished question: Where are our families?

The men, many of them supporters of independence for East Timor, had fled to the mountains early last month, seeking to escape anti-independence militias pillaging the countryside. They camped out in caves and makeshift bamboo tents, fearful that they--but not their wives, mothers and children--would be targeted by the militiamen.

But now, as these men walk down to their ransacked homes, to their church and then to the burned-out town center, they are discovering an eerie desolation. No squealing children. No smell of cooking fires. Nobody. Anywhere.

In another cruel twist to the conflict that has engulfed this poor island territory since Aug. 30, when residents overwhelmingly voted to secede from Indonesia, international peacekeepers and human rights observers here believe that, in a final act of retribution, most women, children and older men from this town and dozens of others were herded by militiamen across the nearby border into Indonesian-controlled western Timor, where they are being held against their will. And now it is the men here who are voicing the same wrenching grief as mothers and wives have in so many other military conflicts, when their sons and husbands were carted off to prison camps.

"All I can think about is my family," said Roberto Soares, 20, who last saw his mother, two sisters and six other relatives on Sept. 4, the day he ran into the hills with dozens of other young men.

He thinks his family is being held at a refugee camp near Atambua, a town about 20 miles away in western Timor, which is still part of Indonesia and is under control of the central government in Jakarta. "I'm worried," he whispered, his voice choking up. "I hear they are killing people in Atambua."

Although allegations of widespread murders or forcible detentions in the camps have not been independently confirmed, human rights workers say the militias have intimidated the women and children, warning them that if they return to East Timor, their husbands and sons will be attacked.

"They're using threats, not fences," said Richard Ragan, an emergency officer with the U.N. World Food Program, which has flown more than 10 tons of high-protein biscuits to Maliana.

Peacekeepers anticipate that many of the 260,000 people believed to be in the camps might return to East Timor on foot, through this town. If and when that might happen, though, is unclear. Representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees still have not been able to enter the camps near Atambua, where as many as 150,000 people--including 25,000 from the Maliana area--are believed to be held.

"The border is sealed, locked, shut," said Jacques Franquin, a spokesman for the U.N. agency. "We believe they will be allowed to return one day, but when and how is anybody's guess."

That uncertainty defines Roberto Alves's life. A university student, he came home from the Indonesian city of Surabaya in late August to vote and subsequently fled into the mountains with his father after being threatened by militiamen. When Alves returned home Saturday, he discovered his mother and sister were gone.

"Without my family, it doesn't feel like I have returned," said Alves, 24.

Since his family's house was burned down during the militia rampage, he sleeps in one of the few intact dwellings in his neighborhood--one that used to belong to a militiaman. With his mother and sister gone, Alves said he has no desire to clean out the family house and rebuild it.

"I just don't feel like doing anything now but wait for them," he said.

Wearing a blue sweat shirt and camouflage cutoffs, he has spent much of the last two days surveying the damage in Maliana, which used to be a vibrant town surrounded by coffee plantations and corn fields about 40 miles southwest of Dili, the East Timorese capital.

From the air, the community looks like it was hit by a powerful hurricane. Roofs are gone. Windows have been shattered. Smashed furniture sits outside houses.

Walking through the neighborhoods, which are patrolled by Australian peacekeeping troops and a regiment of British army Gurkhas, the thoroughness of the destruction is evident. Water pipes have been hacked open; cars are blackened shells.

When the men first began descending from the hills, peacekeeping troops wondered whether women were staying behind, waiting for a signal that the town was safe. And they questioned whether the men's families had taken refuge in other places.

"It quickly became clear that wasn't the case," said New Zealand army Maj. Mark Ogilvie. "These guys have a good bush telegraph. If their families were in the hills, they'd know about it."

Even if their families return, many of the men know life will take months, if not years, to return to normal. The turmoil prevented people from planting crops before the rainy season, which begins in the next week or two, meaning that a food shortage likely will continue into next year. Then there is the matter of reconstructing homes, schools and other elements of life as they knew it.

Soares, who sleeps in an Indonesian state television transmission facility, one of a handful of buildings left intact by the militias, said he does not intend to return to the University of East Timor, where he had been studying economics.

"There is a lot of work to do in Maliana," he said. "We may have our independence, but we are starting from nothing."

CAPTION: East Timorese women walk past a gutted shop in Dili, the territorial capital, after a day of scavenging for food.