From the corner of a display case in a squat brick home hangs an identification tag for Eduardo Tchimuishi: father, husband, lover of barbecues and Black Label beer, and alleged mercenary. This laminated photo and a pair of letters from a notorious Zimbabwean prison are about all his family has left of him.

The tag is from a security company that employed Tchimuishi, 49, to guard a fabric warehouse last year. But the photo of Tchimuishi, bald-headed, wearing a camouflaged shirt and displaying a certain fierceness in the eyes, hints at his apartheid-era occupation as a professional soldier for a force so dreaded it became known as "Os Terriveis" -- Portuguese for "The Terrible Ones."

Now Tchimuishi is one of 65 men -- about 20 of whom are former members of Os Terriveis -- jailed in Zimbabwe for their roles in an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich country in Central Africa slightly smaller than Maryland. The men were arrested in March on an airstrip in Zimbabwe. Officials there say they were trying to pick up weapons on their way to topple the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, to allow for an exiled opposition leader to take his place. About 14 people are on trial in Equatorial Guinea on related charges.

The case has caught the public's attention in both South Africa and Britain because of the involvement of some upper-crust Britons, including the alleged coup leader, Simon Mann, the heir to a brewery fortune, and his longtime friend and neighbor, Mark Thatcher, the son Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister. Mann was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role; Thatcher is still under investigation as an alleged financier of the plot.

But the case also recalls the role that Os Terriveis, known formally as 32 Battalion, has played in the region's tangled history. At a time when many mercenaries have gained respectability as well-paid private security officers in Afghanistan and Iraq, men such as Tchimuishi have struggled to survive in a country uneasy with its military past.

Battalion 32 consisted mainly of black Angolans commanded by white South Africans. For nearly 20 years, they were the apartheid government's favorite weapon against its enemies, both outside the country and within. Then, at the behest of a newly empowered black majority, the battalion was abruptly disbanded in 1993 and left here in Pomfret, on the dusty southern edge of the Kalahari Desert.

Tchimuishi and his family remained in the town, whose dilapidated military buildings and stretches of barbed wire still recall its past.

"It's not that I like it here," said Tchimuishi's wife, Bibiana Tchimuishi, 52, who was born in Namibia and, like her husband, speaks mainly Portuguese. "We just don't have the money to move out."

The battalion was formed in 1975 out of the remnants of a rebel force fighting the Marxist government in Angola. The South African government and the United States supported rebels there as a way, they said, to block the spread of communism in southern Africa.

The war, which also drew in Cuba and the Soviet Union, continued for 27 years and left Angola among the most war-ravaged nations on earth, with hundreds of thousands of hidden land mines, few schools and uncommonly high rates of child mortality.

Tchimuishi joined 32 Battalion in 1976 and drove an armored vehicle for the group, his wife said. A blurry picture she has shows Tchimuishi as a young man standing atop what appears to be a tank, looking at the massive gun barrel. He is wearing the camouflaged beret that distinguished the battalion's uniform from other forces in the South African military.

South Africa withdrew the battalion from Angola in 1989 and moved its 1,200 members to Pomfret.

Pomfret, a former mining camp, was 125 miles from the nearest supermarket or restaurant. Dangerous fibers from an abandoned asbestos mine blew across the town with each blast of dry wind from the Kalahari. But 800 new brick homes, a few basic shops and modern medical care made Pomfret briefly bustle. With the families of the soldiers here as well, the population reached 8,000.

The men were deployed along the Zimbabwean border, where the military wing of the African National Congress trained fighters to battle the government, and also in townships across South Africa to quell the violent unrest that marked the final years of apartheid. With their distinctive berets and lack of familiarity with local languages, 32 Battalion became a target for the ANC, which succeeded in negotiating it out of existence shortly before the first multi-racial election in South Africa a decade ago.

Despite its later infamy, many people here remember the first years after 32 Battalion's disbandment fondly. Most of the men received one-time cash payments to resign from the military. They and their families were given South African citizenship and were allowed to keep their homes cost-free. Basic services such as electricity and schooling were heavily subsidized.

Tchimuishi and his friends relaxed in the evenings at family barbecues that brought neighbors together. They ate tangy South African sausages and drank Black Label beer and Amarula, a creamy South African liqueur.

But there were no jobs, at least none suitable for former soldiers with little other job experience. The cash from the severance payments soon ran out. Most of the men started drifting away from Pomfret to take security jobs in far-off cities, returning home for only a few weeks a year.

"We're trapped here," said Lucas Kandjima, 51, a friend of Eduardo Tchimuishi's and a former 32 Battalion soldier who was home in Pomfret for a visit. "Now it's harder. The men have to go away farther and stay away longer. . . . Everybody's spread out and looking for work, and nobody has money."

Some became mercenaries. Mann, the former British Special Forces officer who allegedly organized the Equatorial Guinea coup, reportedly employed 32 Battalion veterans for an earlier venture called Executive Outcomes. The mercenary group fought in Angola, Sierra Leone and other African countries with unstable governments and valuable resources such as gold and oil.

Former members of 32 Battalion were also implicated in an attempted coup last year in Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny country off the west coast of Africa.

"The moment you're looking for ex-soldiers, Pomfret is one of the places you go," said Piet Nortje, a former 32 Battalion sergeant major who has written a history of the unit. "They're much better trained, more experienced."

Tchimuishi's family said he called home in March to say he was headed to Congo to guard a diamond mine. He had recently left his job at the fabric warehouse, said Conrad Stoltz, a former sergeant with 32 Battalion and a director of the security company that employed Tchimuishi. The coup plotters reportedly offered Tchimuishi about $2,000, more than six times his old monthly salary.

Family members of other men jailed in the case have reported similar stories and denied any prior knowledge of the coup.

Bibiana Tchimuishi has seen her husband once since the ordeal began. She traveled to Zimbabwe with other wives of the accused to attend a court hearing where she said she caught a glimpse of her husband for a few minutes as he entered the courtroom, shackled and looking gaunt.

In a letter she received shortly after returning home from the visit, Eduardo urged his wife not to lose faith. "Do not get tired," he wrote in fractured English, which is also the language of the Zimbabwean prison censors who had to approve the letter. "Keep on sending letter to inform me how is your lives going."

That was in June. This month, he and the other mercenaries received sentences of one year on immigration charges, accused of landing illegally in the country. Mann was sentenced to seven years on weapons charges. All of the sentences are in addition to the six months the men had already spent in jail.

Bibiana Tchimuishi does not expect to see her husband again until his prison term ends next September.

"It seems to me as if he has died already," she said, as three of the couple's daughters and two grandsons milled about the house. "Now nobody calls. It's just me. I'm mother and father to these children."

Bibiana Tchimuishi, wife of an ex-soldier jailed in Zimbabwe for allegedly helping coup plotters in Equatorial Guinea, awaits his return in Pomfret, South Africa.Mark Thatcher, left, son of the former British prime minister, is suspected of financing the alleged plot. Simon Mann, a former British Special Forces operative, was jailed for seven years in Zimbabwe earlier this month.