MOZAMBICAN refugees, who stream daily into the northeastern corner of South Africa, are a tribute to the human will to survive. ``To be a refugee is to be at the bottom end of the ladder,'' says Sally McKibbin, secretary of a relief committee for the refugees. This would apply to most of the world's tens of millions of refugees.
But the plight of the Mozambican refugees in South Africa seems more pitiful than most. The Mozambicans are fleeing one of the most vicious guerrilla groups in the world - the Mozambican National Resistance Movement, better known by its Portuguese acronym, Renamo.
Renamo, which recently entered into a partial cease-fire with the Mozambican government, has been compared in a United States government report to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
It has been held responsible for the brutal killing of more than 100,000 civilians, sometimes in frenzied massacres.
The ``bandits,'' as the guerrillas are known in the Mozambican countryside, strike terror in the hearts of rural peasants. When the word is out that they are coming, women drop what they are doing and flee southward with their children.
It is a flight fraught with potentially fatal obstacles. The refugees must avoid the bandits as well as Mozambican soldiers loyal to the Frelimo government.
They must choose between an eight-mile-long electric fence - charged with 3,000 volts - or walk for four days through the Kruger game park facing lions, elephants, and armed game rangers.
Many die of starvation. Some are shot by the bandits or soldiers. More than 100 have been electrocuted on the $10 million electric fence erected by the South African government in 1987. Though constructed principally to keep guerrillas out of South Africa, it serves to cut the southward flow of refugees as well.
Some of them are shot as suspected guerrillas by South African soldiers, alerted by their pathetic efforts to dig their way under the fence or climb over it with the help of a tree trunk.
Those who finally make it face arrest and repatriation, enslavement, or, at best, a hand-to-mouth existence in impoverished tribal homelands.
The refugees are lured to South Africa by the prospect of food and work - and a safer life.
In fact, the South African government - despite a rapprochement with Mozambique - classifies the refugees as ``illegal migrants'' and returns them at the rate of between 1,000 and 2,000 a month.
Despite the somewhat futile repatriation efforts there is still a monthly net inflow and the total number of refugees currently number around 200,000.
Because the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has no presence in South Africa, the fugitives do not even enjoy official ``refugee'' status. This could change if Pretoria allows the UNHCR to oversee the return of some 20,000 to 40,000 South African exiles. The UN body would then insist on full refugee status for the Mozambicans inside the country.
THE extreme vulnerability of the fugitives exposes them to varying degrees of exploitation by white farmers and outright slavery by unscrupulous ``guides.'' The guides are mainly Mozambicans who charge between $40 and $80 to accompany fugitives on the hazardous journey.
Recently the liberal newspaper Weekly Mail exposed an elaborate slave racket in which traders sell young men as free labor and young women as concubines for around $40 each.
If the ``slaves'' complain, the paper reported, the ``owner'' calls the police and they are forcibly repatriated to their famine-and-conflict-ridden country.
Successful fugitives end up in the self-governing tribal homelands of Gazankulu or Kangwane which - despite severe problems of poverty and unemployment - issue residence documents to the refugees.
This compassionate gesture gives the fugitives a tenuous status as long as they remain within the ``borders'' of the homelands and don't wander into neighboring South Africa. They are fed by a coalition of church and private charities known as the Hlanganani Refugee Relief Committee.
Food, in the form of corn meal, is provided by Operation Hunger, a Johannesburg-based private relief agency.
In a recent interview Ms. McKibbin, secretary of the committee, said the rate of entry of fugitives depended on the war in southern Mozambique. ``There has been heavy fighting recently,'' she said. ``We have been registering refugees at the rate of 500 to 800 a month.''
McKibbin, who has worked with the refugees for the past four years, said the majority of the arrivals were children. About 25 percent were adult women, and only 5 percent adult men.
She estimated that about 55,000 refugees had been registered in the tribal homelands. ``We are managing to feed those who are arriving,'' she said. ``But they need to supplement the food by working on nearby white farms and that often involves transport and security problems.''
She said most of the refugees wanted to return home once there is a genuine cease-fire in the 15-year-old civil war. ``But the longer they stay here, the more difficult it will be for them to return,'' she said.