Mrewa, Rhodesia — The young black man kicks up a cloud of dust as he dances -- clutching a political party's flag in one hand, a Russian-made AK-47 assault rifle in the other.
The young guerrilla may not know it, but his dance is highly symbolic. Because millions of people are figuratively waiting to see which of the two implements -- the one representing peace, the other violence -- is held higher when the dust of today's uncertainty settles.
Here in a remote African settlement area in Rhodesia, 25 guerrillas of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), part of the Patriotic Front guerrilla alliance, engaged in a brief, rhytmic celebration before turning up at a British-manned rendezvous point to officially mark the end of their part in the Rhodesian bush war.
They boarded turquoise buses for an encampment some 70 miles distant, there to meet other guerrillas and await majority- rule elections in late February.
But it remains an open question just how many of their comrades will join them. By mid-afternoon Thursday, Jan. 3 -- just some 35 hours before the deadline for guerrillas to stop fighting -- only some 5,000 had turned up at official rendezvous points and camps across the country.
That is less than half of the guerrilla forces of the Patriotic Front, even by the most conservative estimates. If substantially more do not turn up by midnight on Jan. 4, the British government will find itself in a political quagmire from which there will be no easy extrication. British sources predict a "last-minute rush" of guerrillas, but insist that the deadline is inflexible.
Few observers see how British Governor Lord Soames can forge ahead with plans for majority-rule elections unless more of the guerrillas turn up. Some expect a de facto deadline extension, if not an official one.
Oddly enough, some of the most encouraging forecasts about compliance with the cease-fire come from the guerrillas themselves. Some claim that communications problems are preventing word of the cease- fire from reaching fighters in the remote stretches of the country.
"We are scattered," says one guerrilla who identifies himself only as Tim. "Officers are trying by all means to hurry the [cease-fire] process," he says, but are finding it difficult to reach their far-flung cadres with instructions. "They will come in" when those instructions are received, says Tim, stressing "they will follow orders."
But there are still deep-seated suspicions among some of the guerrillas.
"It's emotion. Emotion," stresses one guerrilla. "Some of us have suffered for a long time."
Appeals by Patriotic Front co-leader Robert Mugabe, broadcast from transmitters in neighboring Mozambique, are said to be dispelling some of the guerrillas' fears of betrayal during the cease-fire process, but many still voice reluctance about abandoning the war effort.
"The British are trying to make it [the cease-fire] work," says another ZANU guerrilla, "but what about the South Africans pouring in here?"
He is voicing a common complaint, namely that South African troops even now are helping the Rhodesian Army recapture areas "liberated" by the guerrillas during the war.
Other guerrillas complain that government forces, especially the so-called auxiliaries loyal to former prime minister Bishop Abel Muzorewa, are roaming the country even while the guerrillas are gathering at cease-fire points.
"Some of them are intimidating the masses -- forcing them to vote for Muzorewa," explains a ZANU guerrilla wearing a wide-brimmed hat, his automatic rifle slung casually over his shoulder.
Indeed, while the bus in which he was riding to a cease-fire encampment stopped in nearby Mtoko for refueling, fully armed government troops lounged at a nearby hotel tavern.
John Gotora, a civilan worker, observed, "Things are not going properly here. We are still seeing the auxiliaries operating, but the guerrillas are going in behind the fences."
Nevertheless, the prospect of the bush war here finally coming to an end caused a near-euphoric reaction in some African villages and townships. As the turquoise buses carrying the guerrillas rumbled thorugh, crowds of spectators began chanting such slogans as, "You were sent by your parents to go and fight the war. We are glad you have come back."
Others were optimistic but said they still harbored doubts as the cease-fire entered its crucial final stage.
"Looking back on the war is like a dream," said one young man who said he was once a guerrilla. "But the dream is not over. "We're still praying. They've tricked us before and they could trick us again."