Consider the world as Jelisaveta Karadjordjevic sees it.
Her life has been a series of upheavals and adjustments. Born in a palace in Belgrade -- she is known to the world as Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia -- she was separated from her homeland in 1941 when a military coup d'etat overthrew the monarchy.
Since then, she has lived in Kenya, South Africa, Greece, Paris, New York and London, and currently gets around with a British passport (courtesy of her second husband, a British banker), an American green card (her first husband was an American garment tycoon) and a permanent identity crisis.
It's no wonder.
In 1943, when Elizabeth's immediate family was living under British house arrest in Kenya (her father accused of cooperating with the Nazis by signing a nonaggression pact), the Yugoslavian parliament abolished the country's monarchy. That legislation not only prohibited the return of any family members to Yugoslavia, but also did away with their citizenship, their property rights -- their virtual existence.
With her father Prince Paul (who, after the assassination of his cousin King Alexander in Marseilles, France, ran the country as prince regent from 1934 to 1941), her mother, Princess Olga of Greece, and her brothers, the 6-year-old princess became a nonperson.
"I didn't represent anything," she says. "I had this stupid name... . Who was I?"
The princess, who now makes her home in New York, has lived a number of lives since then: as a proper young European royal in a French finishing school; as a good friend of Andy Warhol's, whom she met as a bonafide member of the hot New York art scene of the '60s; as the wife (serially) of three successful men from three countries; as the mother of three children, among them actress Catherine Oxenberg; and as the fiancee of actor Richard Burton (in 1974, between his divorce from and remarriage to Elizabeth Taylor).
But throughout her adventures, this beautiful woman of a certain age had never thought about Yugoslavia. "It was a thing of the past which I completely erased," she says. After all, she was 4 when she left, and it was in the United States that she felt most at home. "I like the feeling that I live in a country that accepts everyone."
Then three years ago, when she was accompanying her third husband, Peruvian senator and former prime minister Manuel Ulloa, to a meeting of former heads of state in Budapest, Ulloa confronted an ex-president of the republic of Slovenia. "I want to take my wife to Yugoslavia," he demanded. "What could the man say," says Elizabeth.
Soon the couple was on a train to Belgrade. It was an awakening.
"I felt like a ghost," she recalls. "No one knew I existed. I cried for 24 hours. And then we left."
Within the year, she returned, first for three days -- initially there was official concern that people might learn of her prohibited visit -- and then two years ago for two months.
At first communication was difficult; she remembered little Serbian but a determination to speak it (and months working with language tapes) has made that possible.
And as she learned more about the Yugoslavia of today, she became more determined to find out about the Yugoslavia her family had left behind. Considerable research and unearthing of documents convinced her that her father's name had been blackened unfairly, and she wrote a book about him that was published in English in Belgrade last year. "I saw an enormous need for truth," she says.
(In Yugoslavia, the family's status remains the way it has been since 1943. "She may certainly say what she likes," says Yugoslav Embassy spokesman Momcilo Koprivica. "But according to the decision made during World War II, the king's family is prohibited from coming back. ... They were considered traitors because they left the country immediately after the German occupation took place. Legally speaking, that decision has never been changed, though in practice Jelisaveta has been there a number of times.")
She also felt a need to do what she could for the people she had begun to see as her own. Even before the chaos of the last few months focused attention on Yugoslavia, Princess Elizabeth started her own foundation -- the papers granting it tax status arrived last week -- in order to help get media attention, money and technological assistance to the country. Medical facilities are of particular concern to her. "The women's health care is awful," she says. "The children's hospital is awful."
Anxious to think beyond the crises of the moment, she is eager to use the foundation for nonpolitical ends: conservation, the environment, national pride. For example, "if we invest in regional ecosystems, we can make a difference. And out of that can come better business and tourism," she says.
Her activities have connected her to Yugoslavia in a way she never thought possible. She has an office and an assistant and is raising money for a conference in Belgrade on Sept. 20 on the ecology of the Danube basin.
Of course, she has lived elsewhere in Europe and in America all these years, cut off from the regional concerns of people in Yugoslavia, and her politics reflect that distance.
"There have been years of hatred," she laments, as she details the history of animosity that has divided the southern Slavic region. But she sees no reason for the old hatreds to continue. "There were terrible crimes committed during the war," she says. "People must apologize and get on with life. Let's go out and forgive. We have to get rid of the system, change it totally. We have to find modes of living democratically with one another."
With such dreams for the future (and before Wednesday's reprieve when, to avert civil war, the Slovenian Parliament voted to accept a three-month peace accord brokered by the European Community), Elizabeth wrote two open letters to the women of Yugoslavia -- particularly those with sons in the Serbian Army, in the hope that they would keep them from fighting.
"Mothers, wives, daughters -- my sisters," she wrote. "The great love you have for your family must shine through the darkness of hatred and save our suffering nation. The power of love is infinitely more powerful than hatred. Let the poor and unhappy men who are calling for war, declare war on their own egos, and not on our sons. Our people have suffered enough."
She is immensely pleased that the letters were published -- as she is with all the media attention she has been getting in Yugoslavia -- particularly because the law abolishing the monarchy and prohibiting her family's return is still on the books.
"I feel I have to be in service and of service," she says.
She has finally become proud of her past. She points to her family's honorable lineage -- their ancestors from the 14th-century kingdom of Montenegro, and their more recent relative Karageorge (Black George), the liberator who successfully fought the Turks in 1804.
And she is eager to share her knowledge with the young people she has met during her frequent trips to Yugoslavia in the last few years. When she first started visiting, people could barely believe she was still alive. They questioned her about her background, about Yugoslavia before communism. They even asked her to baptize them, to be their godmother. She is touched by their curiosity. "How can they change the future if they don't know the whole truth about the past?" she asks.
The truth that is particularly important to her, of course, is the one regarding her family. The publication of her book was an effort not only to redeem her father's memory, but also to validate her quest. "I think I know who I am now," she says.
Recently an encounter with some students she met on the street in Belgrade reinforced her new-found identity. "I am your godmother," she told them, wishing them well as they parted.
"You are our princess, Jelisaveta," they replied.
"And don't you forget it."