MACHAZE, Mozambique -- Filimone Ntembapa had only two choices after the rains failed to come this year. He could move his family while they were still strong enough to walk, or he could watch them starve.
The 51-year-old tribal chief already had seen many of his people flee the village of Butiro in search of food, and he knew the time had come for him to go too.
So last month he packed up his two wives and six children and led them out of Butiro on a dangerous nighttime flight through rebel-held territory to this government-controlled town.
If caught by the rebels, he said, they could have been detained, beaten or worse. But they had to risk it. The alternative was death.
"If we stayed in Butiro, we would all perish because there was nothing to eat," he said, standing under the shade of a large tree in the refugee center, where bags of maize had been distributed.
"Some families remained behind because they are too weak to travel. They will perish," he said, explaining the reality of life without rain for Mozambique's peasant farmers.
Millions of people are threatened with starvation this year as the countries of Southern Africa wither under the severest drought of the century. Across the region, riverbeds have dried up, farmlands have gone brown, and the people are becoming increasingly desperate. Some are living on roots and leaves. Others await relief shipments. Many wander the countryside in search of food.
The drought is most acute in Mozambique, weakened by 17 years of civil war. More than a million people have died in the war, and more than 5 million have been displaced. Even before the drought, Mozambique was one of the world's poorest countries with the world's highest infant death rate.
Now, another 3 million people are at risk of starvation if they do not receive emergency supplies, according to the United Nations. The food is arriving in the country following an urgent U.N. appeal in May, but it is unclear how much will reach the people because the war has cut off supply routes to most areas.
Machaze, for instance, is accessible only by air. A town of 23,000, it has not received supplies by road since 1983. Its population is swelling every day with peasants from the hinterland who risk the dangers of the roads.
"We're having serious problems in supporting these people," said David Antonio, the local administrator. "The situation in Machaze is dramatic. We've started having deaths because of starvation."
U.N. officials in Maputo, the capital, hope to avert starvation on a level comparable to Ethiopia in 1984, when hundreds of thousands died before the world was aware of the disaster.
The situation in Mozambique threatens fewer people than does the one in the East African country of Somalia, where hundreds already are dying every day from drought and war. The United Nations says1.5 million Somalis are at imminent risk of dying and 4.5 million are nearing starvation.
Also in Mozambique's favor, unlike in Somalia, the main cities remain under government control and the ports are functional, which means food can reach much of the population. The big problem is the countryside, which is inaccessible because of the war.
Across the country, local facilities are being strained to the limit by an ever-growing influx of hungry peasants. Officials in other districts also are reporting deaths, some along the road among people who began their journeys in weakened condition and grew weaker with each day they did not find food.
"People wait until the last minute to leave. Of course you have some dying on the road," said Jean Claude Legrand, director of the World Food Program office in Chimoio, the capital of Manica province, where Machaze is located.
The cruel combination of drought and war has created a special new crisis for Mozambique, which has seen an unremitting series of crises since it became independent from Portugal in 1975.
"Mozambique has been a country of calamities for many years," President Joaquim Chissano said in an interview. "We have had floods, hurricanes, hailstorms, drought and war."
The war started immediately after independence, with the rebels first getting assistance from white-ruled Rhodesia, which became black-ruled Zimbabwe. Later, South Africa provided major support for the rebel group, known as Renamo.
For its part, Mozambique's Marxist government supported rebel movements in the two countries.
South Africa says it no longer officially supports the Mozambican rebels. Mr. Chissano says he accepts the assurance of his neighbor but believes Renamo still receives help from individuals in South Africa.
And Mozambique's government is no longer Marxist. Mr. Chissano has embraced a program to restructure and rebuild his nation by encouraging private enterprise and democratic ideals.