Normal in West Beirut meant something like shops open, traffic snarled and, for nurse Ben Alofs, getting a driving lesson from a Norwegian in a Volkswagen ambulance.

Normal in a refugee camp outside Beirut, for Alofs and his medical colleague Pauline Cutting, meant being under siege, nearly starving, watching a girl being shot outside the camp boundaries, hearing that a friend had been killed by mortar fire on his way to donate blood for the wounded.

Normal in Washington is sliding into a booth in the coffee shop of the hotel on Capitol Hill, she in a black suit, he in shirt and tie and fedora, and pulling up two ashtrays. They both smoke steadily -- a legacy of Lebanon, a smokers' culture. When they ran out of cigarettes in the camp at Bourj-al-Barajaneh, Cutting says, they smoked dried tea leaves.

Cutting is a 35-year-old British surgeon, Alofs a 34-year-old Dutch nurse. Their work over the past two years in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon has brought them worldwide attention. Cutting was awarded a British civilian honor, the Order of the British Empire. Their bonds to the Palestinians they met are strong and emotional. So are their bonds to each other. They fell in love in a refugee camp.

Political beliefs weave in and out of those bonds -- Alofs' seeming more passionate than Cutting's. "Health care is politics," he says.

Both lecture and show their slides about the Palestinians in these camps; they spoke here in the fall at the Palestine Human Rights Campaign National Conference. They have lectured in Sweden, Belgium and England before health groups, refugee study groups, Palestinian solidarity groups and human rights groups.

If they're being used for political purposes, to dramatize the broader Palestinian cause, Cutting frankly doesn't care -- as long as a bigger issue is addressed: "If they're using our experiences as health workers to improve the situation of those people, no, I don't mind."

Their sympathies are unmistakable. In the camps, Alofs explains, "there was no difference between foreigners and Palestinians, because mortars and sniper bullets don't differentiate. We were all in the same situation." Of the Palestinians in the camps, Cutting says, "They're living a miserable existence through no fault of their own."

Why do people voluntarily submit themselves to, at worst, the ravages of war and, at best, the grimness of living in a shantytown? Each has a somewhat different response.

For Alofs, the answer is filled with emotion. He first went to Lebanon in 1975 as a student interested in anthropology. A curiosity about the country and the people led him to work in a refugee camp, and he spent a month and a half there before returning home. In the Netherlands he read about the civil war in Lebanon. "Realizing that I had friends there who were probably killed made such a deep impression that I decided just to quit my studies and concentrate on practical skills like nursing," he says.

He returned as part of a medical team after the Israeli invasion and was in the Sabra refugee camp during the siege and massacres, by Christian militiamen, at the Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982. "I went back home for a few months, but after such an experience, I felt completely at a loss being in Holland," he says. Since then, he has gone in and out of Palestinian refugee camps where he could use his medical skills.

For Cutting, involvement started out more matter-of-factly: She saw a need and the time was right. She had finished a contract as a junior surgeon at a British hospital doing burn and reconstructive work. She was working toward a specialty in emergency surgery, and the experience she gained turned out to be helpful in Lebanon. "In the siege, we had to be doctors of everything," she says.

The decision to trade a comfortable London flat and job for life in the camps seems not to have fazed her. She wanted to work abroad though she knew little about the Middle East. She was aware that it would be difficult, although she says she didn't anticipate the extraordinary danger that enveloped them. "I didn't go thinking I was going to be involved in a medieval siege and half starved," she says with a chuckle.

When Cutting arrived at Bourj-al-Barajaneh in November 1985, things were quiet.

"Many times it was just a normal life," says Alofs. "We used to go on the weekends, on Sundays when we had our day off, to the Sporting Club in Raouche on the {Beirut} coast."

The refugee camps -- small towns really -- date from 1949 and 1950; the population of Bourj-al-Barajaneh numbers about 9,000. The camp is "a big shantytown," Alofs says. One small building served as a clinic and house for the foreign medical personnel who at any one time numbered from three to five. There was a hospital as well, staffed by nearly a dozen Palestinian doctors.

"Very basic equipment," Cutting says. "Not equipped anything like a hospital here." During the siege a year ago, by Shiite Moslem militiamen, there were five foreign medical workers, including Cutting and Alofs, and six Palestinian doctors.

Cutting and Alofs had met before in London, but in the summer of 1986 their relationship developed, nurtured discreetly.

"Here you can live together without any problems," Alofs says.

"There you can't," Cutting says.

"And we didn't want to mess up our relationship with the people by just not being culturally adept."

They all knew that the camp might be attacked. But "I don't think anyone anticipated such a long siege," Cutting says.

This one started in late October 1986 -- an intense round of fighting between the Amal militia (one of the largest militias in Lebanon) and the Palestinians, triggered by the Palestinian guerrillas' capture of a hilltop village in the south. The Amal, with Syrian backing, laid siege to the camp in an attempt to contain Palestinian guerrillas who lived inside.

Venturing outside the camp boundaries -- no matter who you were -- could be fatal. Women and children going out for food or water were sometimes shot and sometimes killed. The name said it well: the Passage of Death.

"Many people spent months and months indoors. Many of the population lived in underground shelters," Cutting says.

Cutting slept on a camp bed in the hospital, which was on a hill. Alofs stayed in the clinic at the foot of the hill, close to the edge of the camp, a heavily populated area. Even wandering around inside the camp could be dangerous. Forays across the camp meant running and listening for the sound of mortar shells being launched into the camp. "Then you have about 10 seconds to run for cover because you know it's going to explode within 10 seconds but you don't know where," Alofs says.

People who lived in the camp would come to the hospital to help, to give blood, to donate first-aid supplies as hospital supplies dwindled. A friend of Alofs who was on his way to the hospital to give blood was killed "on the spot that I passed five minutes before that," Alofs says. "Some people were really extremely luckless . . . I know one family of 15 persons and during this war five members got killed."

But as the siege wore on, as winter set in, life became just monotonous and miserable, not to mention cold and wet. When they weren't working in the hospital they were still confined. Without the generator on, there was no electricity; the windows were sandbagged so the rooms were dark. Batteries for television and radio were conserved to listen to news broadcasts.

While Cutting worked in the hospital, Alofs worked in the clinic, but every day he would visit. "We were keeping each other's spirits up," Alofs says. Occasionally he found flour and made pancakes and carried them on a pan of hot water up the hill to bestow upon Cutting as a treat.

They fantasized about vacations -- Cairo and Venice were favorites. They talked about whether they would die. "The most frightening thing was the idea that the camp would be forced to surrender and we would all be killed," Cutting says.

In their spare time, they kept diaries -- Alofs wrote 1,200 detailed pages in six months. Cutting kept notes of the injuries she saw as well.

They talked about food. The daily diet of rice or lentils was boring and meager, so food became an obsession. "One of the doctors said to another one evening when we were sitting around in the operating room, 'Tell us some food stories,' " says Cutting.

By the end of January, the camp was suffering from a severe food shortage. Health workers rationed the hospital's supply to the patients and staff. "Some families had completely run out of food and they came to beg for the leftovers," Cutting says. "But there weren't any."

"One day four young Palestinians were trying to bring in a truck of food," says Alofs. "They had bribed some of the militiamen. And just before they entered the camp they shot a grenade at them and killed them all."

"And drove the truck out of reach," says Cutting. (Neither Cutting nor Alofs actually witnessed this incident.)

For a month, Cutting and Alofs ate one meal a day of rice or lentils. Cutting attributes no deaths to starvation, but she saw cases of malnutrition, acute weight loss and food poisoning.

People began to eat rabbits and chickens, and the two mules in the camp. Then they concocted stews of cats and dogs. Cutting and Alofs occasionally ate some of the animals as well. "Only once," says Cutting of the dog she ate.

But the most gruesome image is that of a little boy whom Cutting saw roasting a skinned rat over a fire. It was that story that would be relayed worldwide when journalists managed a radio interview with Cutting in February.

In the middle of that month there was an announcement that women would be allowed out to get food. But, according to Cutting, they were still shot at -- 18 were killed and 50 wounded.

They realized from their radio that the West did not know the extent of what was going on in the camps.

"We heard the Amal talking about the situation," Alofs says. "They were saying the Palestinians attacked and that's why they had to shell the camp. We were hearing lies every day. We got so fed up with it, and the situation was so desperate we had to do something. It was a matter of survival."

"For all of us," Cutting says.

They managed in February via walkie-talkie to contact health workers at another clinic in Lebanon, and journalists as well. Several managed to get into the camp to report on the conditions. (Some western journalists reported being threatened when they tried to portray the plight of the Palestinians.)

On Feb. 18, the Amal partially lifted the siege to allow the camp to stock up on food. By the end of April the siege was over. Alofs and Cutting left the camp on April 14.

"We had a terrible shock," says Alofs. "We came straight from the rubble of Bourj-al-Barajaneh." The British ambassador met them in an armored car with bodyguards and whisked them to a British residence, a villa in the mountains overlooking East Beirut where a butler in a starched white shirt served them.

"He said to us, 'Would you like to wash your hands?' " Cutting says.

"I said to him, 'Have you got a sheep dip?' "

They want to go back this year.

In the meantime they're trying to write books, "then get back to some kind of normal life and work," Cutting says.

They look at the political ramifications of what they do in different ways. Cutting insists that politics is something grafted onto her work by others. "As far as the political solutions are concerned, I don't think that's to do with me."

Alofs disagrees. With few foreigners in Lebanon, he says, "foreign health workers also have a function to monitor the situation there and to be witnesses of things that happen there."

Both have come away from the experience personally connected to the Palestinians with whom they lived and worked. These were people who took care of them, who brought them clothing and food even when they had very little.

In Cutting's eyes, the camp is not a guerrilla base, but a town where people make their homes and raise their families and work. "The men who fight are in normal times plumbers, teachers, but if the camp is attacked they fight," she says. "Some fighters came in from the outside, some without families, but very few."

"The experiences that we had there in Lebanon," says Alofs, "were the most moving, the deepest that I've ever had in my life. I mean, living with these people inside the camps . . . living with them day and night creates very strong bonds of friendship."