JOAQUIM MOLA, who has spent the past seven years in a crowded refugee camp in Malawi, traveled for three days to see whether the rumors of peace in his country were true.
"I came to find out about conditions and see if it is time to settle here," says Mr. Mola, who was forced to flee Mozambique in 1986 when rebels routed his home town of Mutarara on the Zambezi River.
Mola made his journey home by foot, and by dug-out canoe on the Shire River, which makes its way from Malawi to the Zambezi River and neatly divides Mozambique's Zambezia and Tete Provinces.
In this once-picturesque town, Mola and five colleagues wander through a small market looking at the displays of coconuts, sugar cane, tomatoes, and roasted baby rats. (Mozambicans grill the newborn rodents over charcoal.)
Mola is one of about 1.3 million Mozambican refugees who fled the country over the past decade to escape the bitter 16-year civil war between the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), a force controlled by the country's Marxist-Leninist government, and a rebel army known as the Mozambican Resistance Movement (Renamo). Renamo was described in a 1988 US State Department report as more brutal than Cambodia's Khmer Rouge.
The refugees, who are spread over six neighboring countries - Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Tanzania - are torn between the pull of returning home and the security of food aid and peace that lie beyond Mozambique's borders.
They are now part of the largest repatriation program ever undertaken by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Africa and the second largest - after Afghanistan - in the world.
The Mozambicans are spread over more countries than any previous operation.
Since a peace accord was signed in Rome last October, an estimated 300,000 refugees, mainly from Malawi, have returned to the country. Others have come to take a look and then return to well-supplied refugee camps in southern Malawi.
The UNHCR has tentatively begun a formal repatriation program, which is expected to take about three years. So far, the only refugees being repatriated are those in Zimbabwe. About 1,500 have been returned since the program began in the first week of June.
An estimated 100 refugees a day are arriving in Sofala Province from Malawi, about 250 a day in Tete Province, and about 150 people a week cross into Mozambique from South Africa.
Most arrive with their worldly possessions in bundles on their heads. Some have salt or cloth to sell. The returnees walk for days, and sometimes weeks, to reach their destinations.
In addition to the 1.3 million refugees, there are 3 million to 4 million internally displaced people in Mozambique who have also begun returning to their places of origin.
Today, government-controlled towns such as Morrumbala - islands surrounded by rebel territory and during the war reachable only by air - are becoming accessible by road as a result of the Rome peace accord.
The agreement prepares the way for the country's first democratic ballot in October 1994.
But in Zambezia's western Milange district, which includes the main highway from Malawi to Mozambique, Renamo still maintains tight control, and the roads are heavily mined. More than 200,000 refugees are expected to return to their homes through this district.
Like most refugees coming back for the first time, Mola left his wife and small child behind and will return to Malawi again in time to receive his monthly ration of food supplied by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Malawi.
Morrumbala, in Zambezia Province, is just 30 miles east of Mutarara. Mola says he feels it would be a good place to test the promises of aid he has heard about for refugees who want to return to the land.
He was disappointed to find that there were no facilities for returning refugees or a support system to tide them over while they wait for their first harvest from their machambas (traditional small landholdings).
"If I get a machamba, it will take some time before it produces food," Mola says. "How will I survive in the meantime?"
Mola has learned some basic rules of economics during his period as a refugee and has brought some plastic buckets to sell in Mozambique.
Ruiz Mateus, a friend who traveled with Mola from Malawi, carries a cassette player, which carries a price tag of 220,000 meticais (about $55).
Most of the interior of the country, formerly inaccessible because of rebel attacks, has been opened up to aid organizations and UN peacekeepers.
In Zambezia alone, about 1 million people - the majority of them internally displaced - are returning to their places of origin. This mass movement has sparked a network of trade and barter that is pumping new life into the ailing economy of one of the world's poorest countries.
"There is a constant flow of people," says Mercedes Sayagues, who works for WFP. "Unless people are sure that they will get food, they go back and forth to ensure that they do not lose their entitlement. There is a great deal of trade going on."
The government in Maputo and international donors are at odds over a repatriation strategy. The program insists that repatriation may only "take place in conditions of security and dignity," but aid officials worry that it could take up to three years to satisfy this requirement.
Government officials argue that refugees have already started to return in large numbers and should be provided for.
A total of $209 million is needed for the whole repatriation program, but only $13 million has been pledged by four Western countries, of which only $5 million has been made available.
This year, the end of a two-year drought - the worst in southern Africa this century - has raised the prospect of good harvests in the neighboring states, increasing the ambivalence of prospective returnees.
And the momentum for peace seems strong.
"I think it is possible to return to Mozambique," Mola says. "The war is over. If peace holds and the election goes well, then I think I will be able to stay."
He even says he would have no problem living under the rule of Renamo if they win the 1994 election.
"I think peace is here to stay," he says.