MILKING a camel is an art.You stand on one foot, lift your other leg, balance a handmade bowl on your uplifted knee, then grab and squeeze, using the same motion as milking a cow. And you better know your camel - or rather, she better know you, or else you'll end up with spilled milk and maybe even a swift kick. But the Afar know their camels and vice versa. A nomadic people, much-feared by rival tribes, cut off for years by Ethiopia's civil war (which ended in May), and now suddenly in a politically sensitive position in Ethiopia, the Afars say they can track a strayed camel for miles, distinguishing the print of their animal from all other camels as it crosses this rugged, barren land - one of the toughest pieces of geography in the world. Shortly before sunset, at the edge a cluster of Afar huts, a cocoa-brown baby camel sits on the ground next to his mother. Newly born, possibly that day, it makes a gentle bleating, something like a baby lamb, while the mother licks it. Then one of the villagers hoists it up and lays it over his shoulders, baby camel legs dangling on either side of his head, and carries it home to a protective bramble-branch enclosure for the night. We follow the Afars back to their homes of bent-stick frames covered by reed mats. At one home, Fatuma Mohammed, the only wife of Hassan Ali, a Moslem, like most Afars, is waiting for her husband to bring in the camels for milking. Their four children gather around curiously to see the visitors. "We don't know any other life," Fatuma says through an Afar interpreter. "I couldn't say whether life is better in town. But we like this life." On the surface, it looks like a rugged, but exciting, independent and colorful life. Afar men have a tradition of being warriors and defending their precious pasturelands from hostile Issas and other tribes. Afars traditionally wore - and still do for special occasions - big, broad, curved knives in sheaths attached to their belts. The women today wear long, brightly colored wraparound skirts. Before marriage, most wear nothing above the waist except beaded necklaces. After marriage they typically don a black gauze veil worn as a shawl and sometimes over their head, but not covering the face. Yet the Afars, who people a large section of eastern Ethiopia, much of the Eritrean coast, and parts of neighboring Djibouti, today are in trouble. For one thing, they want to unite again, as they were years ago. But Eritrea, now proclaiming independence from Ethiopia, opposes any Afar demand to give up part of Eritrea for a united Afar homeland in Ethiopia. Neither does Djibouti like talk of Afar unity. Afar rebel leaders, who fought now-deposed Ethiopian ruler Mengistu Haile Mariam, hint they could fight again one day - for Afar unity. For another thing, Afar lands have been hit by periodic droughts, including one this year. And during the rule of Mengistu, some of their best grazing lands were taken for new or expanded state farms on which the government grew cotton, chasing Afars and their livestock away. AS he milks one of his camels, Hassan Ali says he hopes the recent return of the Afar sultan, or king, Alimirah, from 17 years of forced exile in Saudi Arabia will mean he can once again graze his cows on the state farm. The sultan has promised to return to the Afars some of the state farmlands for farming and grazing. When the sultan stopped at the state farm guesthouse a few miles away, Hassan Ali took him and his entourage some fresh camel milk. It was delicious: a bit smoky from the fire-blackened bowl, a little salty, and thicker than cow's milk. At another Afar village, Iroli, about five miles from this truck-stop town of Gewane, on the road from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, to the port of Aseb, Afars are living on both sides of an invisible border between two Ethiopian provinces (Wello and Shoa), divided by the narrow Awash River. Here, too, there are problems. There is no school within easy walking distance, no clinic, no market, and certainly no electricity, or plumbing. Water comes from the river, shared with the livestock. And sitting down to talk with some Afar children, one gets a few unexpected insights on other Afar problems - and their thinking. Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Fautima Ali, who says she is "about 10," replies, "I will have children." How many? "Maybe 10," she answers, to a ripple of laughter from the other girls. Baro Hammid, who is "about eight," says that when he grows up, "I want to kill Issa the neighboring, cattle-raiding tribe. "They kill our brothers and uncles, so I must kill them," he explains. The Afar and the Issas have for years raided each other. Once they tried intermarriage, an Afar explains, but that didn't work. But what was once a dispute using knives and spears today is now a confrontation with Soviet-made machine guns, Kalashnikovs. Most herders from both tribes wear one slung over their shoulder. "We fight with nature - hyenas, lions - and with Issas," says one Afar man.