In the Kalahari Desert, where the landscape stretches brown and dusty in every direction, water is power. So when the truckloads of men from the government rumbled up to this ancient Bushmen village three years ago, they found the steel drums that held the community's precious reserves. Then, said villagers, the men tipped the drums over, spilling the water into the sand.

Mongwegi Thabogwelo, a lean, hard-working woman who appeared to be in her forties, recalls their cruel words that day: " 'It's the water,' they said, 'that is keeping you from relocating.' "

The forced removal of the Bushmen was the culmination of what the Botswana government said was years of effort to bring development to southern Africa's most traditional people. The Bushmen have resisted at every turn, defying hunting restrictions, refusing to abandon their villages and battling the government in a court challenge they hope will reverse policies that, they say, have pushed them to the edge of extinction.

At the center of the court case has been testimony about the destruction of such villages as Malapo, which proceeded with an efficiency the Bushmen found terrifying. The men from the government dismantled dozens of huts made of branches and brush, villagers said. Then they ordered the Bushmen -- descendants of people who have survived the harsh conditions of the Kalahari for tens of thousands of years -- to board the trucks for an arduous, six-hour drive to the government camp that was to be their new home.

It was a patch of scrubby land far from their traditional sources of game and water-rich plants and, worse still, far from their ancestors' graves, which encircle Malapo. The displeasure of the ancestors, who Bushmen believe provide guidance and protection, was soon apparent, said Thabogwelo. " 'You have lost us,' " her great-grandparents told her in recurrent dreams, she said. " 'Why are you not next to us?' "

The Bushmen once roamed most of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, wearing animal skins and surviving on the abundant wildlife and edible plants throughout the region. But over the past several hundred years, their territory and numbers have been steadily shrinking. First Bantu African farmers moved south; then European settlers expanded north from Cape Town.

Both groups historically regarded the Bushmen with disdain, treating them inhumanely and pushing them into ever smaller and less hospitable corners of the region. Slaughters of Bushmen were once common.

More recently, assimilation has undermined the Bushmen as a culturally distinct group, with growing numbers in their twenties and thirties choosing to live and work outside the game reserve, where steady supplies of water and other government services are available.

By the time the government began its forced relocations with the razing of the village of Xade in 1997, only about 2,000 Bushmen remained in the heart of the Kalahari, in a game reserve larger than Switzerland. The residents of Xade were forced beyond the western border of the reserve into a settlement the government dubbed New Xade. But many Bushmen regard it as a dismal and terrifying place where they are estranged from their ancestors and therefore subject to mysterious diseases and even death.

The second sweep came in 2002, when Malapo and other remaining villages were destroyed and inhabitants such as Thabogwelo were trucked to New Xade. Many had never been on a truck and had no idea where they were being taken.

"We were really scared that we were going to die that day," Gabolowe Rathotato, a thin, animated woman of about 70, said in a recent interview. "We were not even given a chance to think if we wanted to move or not. It was really painful."

The Bushmen say they remain puzzled by the relocations, though many suspect that the government wants easy access to the rich veins of diamonds in the eastern portion of the game reserve.

Officials counter that while mining the diamonds in the reserve is not commercially viable, protecting the game there is a national priority. Sydney Pilane, the government's lead attorney in the case, said that as the Bushmen gradually moved into permanent villages, they began keeping domesticated animals, growing crops and hunting the reserve's plentiful game with guns. Left unchecked, he said, they would have transformed the pristine wildlife reserve into a series of villages and towns.

He also said that most Bushmen preferred to live outside the reserve and that the government was eager to provide them with the services found in most of Botswana, one of Africa's most prosperous and stable nations, with 1.6 million people. There are an estimated 48,000 Bushmen in Botswana and twice that many in southern Africa overall, though few still live in traditional villages such as Malapo.

Bushmen elders trace their problems to the 1980s, when the government began sharply limiting hunting, which not only deprived villagers of a source of protein but also undercut the rituals crucial to each boy's passage to manhood. Young Bushmen were required to go to government schools outside the game reserve, where they were taught in English and Setswana rather than their native tongues.

During those years, the government began providing regular deliveries of water to Bushmen. Though they were grateful for the help, the deliveries undermined centuries of knowledge about how to survive by extracting moisture from melons, berries or fibrous roots from among the hundreds of plants Bushmen traditionally learn to recognize.

"If they did not bring us the water, we would not be used to it," said the Malapo village chief, Molathwe Mokalaka, who appeared to be in his seventies and is the father-in-law of Thabogwelo.

The water deliveries ended the day of the relocations in 2002. And hunting restrictions turned into outright prohibitions, even for such small game as rabbits. Bushmen acknowledge occasionally breaking the law in their quest for food despite penalties that can include prison.

New Xade, meanwhile, has grown from a relocation camp into a town, complete with a school, a medical clinic and a popular bar. There are also communal water taps and modest government payments to the old and indigent. But residents complain that they do not know which local plants are safe to eat and that there are few jobs. Many Bushmen have fallen into alcoholism, idleness and despair.

Others such as Thabogwelo have returned home.

In those first painful days after the relocation, she and her husband decided they would make the journey as soon as possible, they recalled in recent interviews. They pooled the family's life savings to buy a used Toyota truck, then they traveled the 120 miles home to Malapo, driving gingerly on the soft and shifting sand tracks. Others traveled by foot or donkey.

When Thabogwelo first saw Malapo again after six months in New Xade, she said it was like being freed from jail. "It was just like I was in the darkness and the light opened up on me," she recalled.

She now spends her days collecting roots with other villagers and cooking. She slices large green melons into wedges that, over a fire, release a sweet juice into a cast-iron pot. And as often as she can, Thabogwelo visits the graves of her ancestors.

"I have come back," she has told her great-grandparents at their unmarked gravesites. "You have to forgive me."

But most Kalahari Bushmen have been unwilling to return, at least not with the court case unresolved.

Despite the complaints about New Xade, it exerts a persistent pull on the Bushmen because of its ready supply of water, government handouts and other services. By most estimates, there are 10 times as many Bushmen living in New Xade as inside the game reserve.

The imbalance is most pronounced among younger Bushmen, from schoolchildren through adults in their twenties and thirties. Even Thabogwelo's only child, a 6-year-old son, is attending the government school in New Xade.

But Thabogwelo has no plans to move back, even if the government wins the court case, even if the men come again with their trucks. "I will sit down here," she said. "If they want to shoot me, they can shoot me."

Mongwegi Thabogwelo looks for edible roots near her native village. She vows to remain in the Kalahari Game Reserve, defying relocation efforts.Some elderly Bushmen, such as Kalookomela Phuti, have resisted leaving behind their ancestral homes and traditions. Although some elders, such as Kaingota Kanyo, have refused to leave the Kalahari, many younger Bushmen have relocated to obtain government services, such as a steady supply of water.