THERE is an eerie silence in this abandoned rural settlement, which six months ago was a thriving Zulu community of about 30,000 people set among the lush and rolling hills of Natal province near the town of Richmond. Many houses and shops have been charred in fire-bomb attacks. Children's toys lie abandoned in overgrown gardens, and the corn patches are unattended. The schools are deserted.
Many homes have been looted and stripped of their belongings, which the terrified residents left behind as they fled when they saw the Zulu impi (regiment) approaching across the hills on a fateful day last January.
A mother and her small child walking down one of the deserted dirt roads serve to magnify the silence and emptiness.
The last sign of life in the township is a school for the deaf run by the Methodist Church.
Since the January attack by Zulu warriors loyal to the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, most of the people of Ndaleni, and the neighboring area of Magoda, have fled into Richmond and other towns and villages of war-ravaged Natal.
They have joined an estimated 60,000 refugees fleeing a relentless civil war that has claimed the lives of about 4,500 people in the past six years.
Only a few people remain behind in Ndaleni. Armed bands of men arrive at dusk in a futile bid to guard their possessions. This leads to frequent skirmishes with Inkatha supporters, who sometimes raid the area at night.
The Inkatha attack was apparently sparked by an argument over an automatic rifle seized by youthful African National Congress supporters, known as Comrades, from would-be Inkatha assassins.
Its purpose appears to have been to break the ANC's hold over Magoda, rather than to take control and hold the area.
Local residents and relief workers say the attackers came from the nearby settlement of Pateni, known to Ndaleni residents as an Inkatha-stronghold across the valley.
Peace talks between local ANC and Inkatha leaders were due to start today, but one of the remaining residents in the area was pessimistic.
"It seems that people have to suffer a lot before they have the will to make peace," says Vusi Cele, an induna (adviser) to the local Zulu chief, an Inkatha supporter. "We have tried several times to make peace, but we have failed," he says. "Some people say it's still too early."
Mr. Cele, a simple man who claims to know little about the broader political issues, says most people see violence as an way of getting what they want.
Hayden Osborne, a member of the anti-apartheid End Conscription Campaign mandated to monitor security-force action in the area, says the violence had taken on a momentum of its own.
"People are anti-Inkatha not because of any ideological reason, but because they are perceived as the perpetrators of the conflict," he says.
The police appeared to lack the will to intervene, Mr. Osborne said, and when they did step in, they showed a clear bias toward the Inkatha side. But he praises soldiers of the South African Defense Force stationed in the area for acting in a "thorough and professional" way.
The Rev. John Green, an Anglican minister who lives in Ndaleni, is more reluctant to apportion blame to either side. "This community has been totally polarized," he said. "I have got to the point where I don't trust what either side says anymore."
There are signs of hope in other areas, such as the devastated township of Mpumalanga near Pietermaritzburg, where hundreds of houses have been burned out in the violence and the community shattered.
An ANC/Inkatha peace effort, brokered by a local white businessman, has made impressive progress in Mpumalanga and has laid the foundation for reconstruction of the township.
Democratic Party legislator Pierre Cronje, who represents a Natal voting district in the segregated Parliament, has begun a long-term campaign to bring peace to the troubled rural areas of Natal, under the auspices of the Albert Luthuli Foundation, a developmental body named after the late Chief Albert Luthuli, a former ANC president.
Mr. Cronje, the director of the foundation, sees joint control of the security forces as a key factor in creating a climate in which reconstruction of the devastated Natal settlement could succeed.
The Natal conflict began as an attempt by anti-apartheid organizations, such as the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front and the allied Congress of South African Trade Unions, to gain a foothold in Natal province and challenge Chief Buthelezi's authority.
By the end of 1989, the ANC loyalists had made important gains in a vicious conflict that often saw its victims, on both sides, slaughtered.
But since President Frederik de Klerk legalized the ANC and freed Nelson Mandela, its deputy president, in February 1990, Inkatha warriors - armed with traditional sticks and spears and firearms - have waged a violent counterattack.
Last year alone, more than 1,800 people were killed in battles throughout Natal, particularly in the Edendale valley adjoining Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital, about 40 miles north of here. Although fighting was fiercest in the three months following the legalization of the ANC, it has continued to rage throughout the province over the past 12 months.
It is a political struggle between opposing Zulu factions: members of Inkatha, who uphold the traditional system of tribal authority, and Comrades, who lead a rebellion against the reign of traditionalist chiefs and what they regard as the conservative policies of Inkatha.
Mr. Mandela and Buthelezi, reached accord at a landmark meeting on the need for peace and political tolerance between the two groups.
But the handshake between the two men, who have maintained a polite relationship, failed to make an immediate impact on the violent conflict between the two sides.