The world is changing again. Wild roses are in extravagant bloom, tumbling pink and yellow over garden walls, parading across vacant lots and highway medians, flaunting a beauty both fragile and defiant. The valley grows more verdant by the day, even the hulking mountains that surround it now emerald green. Farmers stoop in the warm May sun, tending their ancient fields by hand.

Chris Hennemeyer drinks in this passing scenery on his daily commute from the cheap hotel he currently calls home in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. Today he was up with the songbirds, downing a quick bowl of cereal before heading to work in his company car, a late-model Land Rover the bean counters are forever plotting to repossess -- "fat chance" being the polite version of Chris's standard response. Ten minutes outside town, the Land Rover makes a hard right onto a dirt road; Chris nods his thanks to the sullen police guards who wave him past.

Suddenly there are no roses, no mountains, no picturesque fields splashed with sunlight. Just people, so many people. Too many people. Dust engulfs the Land Rover in a choking cloud as Chris inches through the mob, grinds to a halt and jumps out. Instantly a weathered man prattling in a foreign language is tugging at his sleeve. Chris shakes his head helplessly. The man switches to rudimentary German, which Chris can manage. "Fuenf Kinder," the man pleads. He has five children. He wants to leave, for their sake, they must get out soon. "Bitte, bitte." Please, please.

Chris tries to explain that there is nothing he can do. The man wanders off, defeated and uncomprehending. The dust swirls at Chris's feet. In the 15-plus years he has spent trying to save the world, Chris has learned this much: With despair, there is always dust.

The walkie-talkie attached to his belt crackles out a question. Are you there? "Charlie Charlie," Chris responds, giving his handle. "Yeah, I'm here."

Chris Hennemeyer is an amiable 43-year-old single dad who has spent most of his adult life doing emergency and developmental work for the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. His home base for the time being is in Haiti, but he's restless there after less than a year. A brief stint in the tumultuous Balkans sounded like just the right dose of adrenaline. He oversees one of eight tent cities erected in this tiny nation to provide sanctuary to ethnic Albanians who fled the Serb campaign of terror in neighboring Kosovo.

Some 23 million people are considered refugees in the world today -- one out of every 264 people on earth. Many have spent their entire lives in involuntary exile; second and even third generations have been born and raised to adulthood in what were supposed to be temporary camps. Caring for them all has become an industry unto itself, a macrame of competitive and often bickering government and nongovernment organizations flung across the globe. Billions of dollars will be spent on humanitarian aid for the relatively brief Kosovo crisis alone, including the repatriation of the 850,000 refugees. It is a relief operation carried out not by volunteers or angels of mercy, but by people who do this for a living -- professional humanitarians.

Built by NATO troops on a dirt airfield in April and at its peak sheltering more than 30,000 people, Stenkovec 1 is starting to empty itself now as the refugees return to Kosovo, a process that officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predict could take months. Like the encompassing Balkan drama itself, life at Stenkovec still unfolds hour by hour, skittering along a continuum that stretches from hope to heartbreak. The experience here has been unsettling to relief cowboys like Chris. His resume reads like a travelogue of horror: Rwanda, Senegal, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zaire, Haiti, civil war, famine, drought, hurricane. He is accustomed to misery on an epic scale, crises defined by chaos and desperation; the calculation and cold precision of this "ethnic cleansing" are disturbing on a different level.

For the first time in his career, the displaced lives are not unimaginably removed from Chris's own. Most of the Kosovar refugees left behind city apartments or suburban houses. Left careers, left gardens, left family pets. They had television sets, refrigerators. Their kids played basketball and computer games. They were part of the middle class.

They arrived at Stenkovec by the bus load, dazed and bewildered. They were issued ration cards. Given a bar of soap and tube of toothpaste to share among four people. They retreated to their tents quietly, hushing fretful children, pushing frail, embarrassed grandparents in wheelbarrows because that was the only option.

The women all carried purses.

Modern war brings with it modern solutions. The politicians, diplomats and generals who waged war and brokered the settlement in Yugoslavia will not be drafting an ambitious Marshall Plan for Kosovo, ensuring that what was demolished is replaced with something stronger, be it dams and power plants or systems of government. That job now belongs primarily to people like Chris Hennemeyer and the myriad private organizations with their own blueprints for rebuilding a civil society brick by brick.

Chris has been there before, mopping up after the leaders and visionaries have left their conference tables. He harbors a cynicism that is dark and merciless and often outrageous. But there's an unmistakable idealism as well, a longing to do what he can, no matter how futile. This line of work requires both.

Chris seldom learns the refugees' names, the crushing numbers reducing them from who they once were to what they now need. They become 17,000 loaves of bread that were supposed to be delivered two hours ago. Running a refugee camp is human algebra, the factors always changing, the solution beyond reach. How many people divided by how much tent space multiplied by how many tins of Norwegian sardines. On paper, Chris's mission here seems deceptively easy -- 90 days as senior manager of Stenkovec 1, then back home to his two kids in Port-au-Prince. Get in, get out, move on.

You can't let it get to you.

Stenkovec covers 70 acres, surrounded by flimsy fencing and guarded by a smattering of armed Macedonian police who camp out in small tents in the adjacent fields. NATO military trucks occasionally patrol the perimeter. More than 100 different agencies have staked claims in the Kosovo crisis, from the engineers pumping water into camp to the Israelis who lead sing-alongs for the children to a politically connected local Muslim group calling itself the Spikes of Goodness.

Chris is vaguely irritated to see new kiosks opening near the camp's entrance. The owner of this once-private airfield apparently wasn't informed by the Macedonian government that his property had been appropriated for the relief effort. Chris can't blame the guy for trying to recoup some of his losses by renting space to merchants, but he is unsettled by the sight of refugees lining up like baseball fans at the refreshment stand to buy beer, ice cream, soda, water, cigarettes, even hot buttered popcorn.

He hops back into his Land Rover to make his morning rounds. First stop is the warehouse, the euphemism for the concrete apron outside the hangar. Supplies bake in the sun because the cool, spacious hangar itself houses planes and aviation fuel and cannot be used. A truckload of donated chocolate pudding has just come in from Germany, and a 15-year-old refugee boy helping to unload it breaks away from the chore.

"Chreees, Chreees!" he shouts.

"Hey, Rafet, how're you?"

The boy struggles to form the English words.

"Fine. Thank you very much."

Rafet is just a year older than Chris's own son, Frank. He and his family have been here for more than a month, since the camp first opened, and Rafet often pops up at Chris's side, wanting to inspect his walkie-talkie, his mobile phone, his Catholic Relief Services baseball cap. "He wants to be me," Chris laughs. Chris promised to give Rafet the hat when the boy and his family left Stenkovec. A few days ago, Rafet announced that they were all going to Canada that very night. Chris wished him good luck and gave him the coveted cap bearing the CRS motto: "Giving hope to a world of need." Rafet was wearing it when he reported for work as usual the next day at the warehouse.

"Rafet is a squirrel of the first order," Chris says affectionately, never realizing that Rafet's family did have exit visas but stayed behind because Rafet's sister was still stranded in a different camp.

On the way back to his command post, Chris is surprised to spot his co-manager playing soccer in the road with a gaggle of kids. Ed Joseph isn't supposed to be at work till late afternoon.

Ed is as intense as Chris is sanguine. They're opposites in other ways, as well. While Chris is the fresh-pressed sort who spends part of his first day off in two weeks shining his shoes, Ed's hotel room in Skopje looks, as Chris observes, "like a suitcase full of clothes exploded." Chris is a Foreign Service brat who grew up around the globe; his parents have since retired in Bethesda. Ed, 41, spent his childhood in Chevy Chase, Md. Ed lives in Bosnia and has spent the past seven years in the hot spots of what once was Yugoslavia. He speaks Serbian and refers to himself as "a Balkans guy." He is deeply engaged by what is happening here. When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the camp, Ed slipped him a neatly typed personal appeal: An ethnic Albanian on CRS's payroll left his sick mother behind in Pristina, and Ed hoped U.N. monitors in Kosovo could check on her.

Ed can't get enough of this region; Chris can't wait to get out.

"Charlie Echo," Chris greets him. Everyone spends so much time on the walkie-talkies at Stenkovec that they've started addressing each other by their radio handles even in person.

"Did cleanup happen today?"

"What do you mean?" Ed protests in mock indignation. "You could eat off this ground."

"I did. That's why I had the trots for three days."

Ed has a laundry list of problems. The United Nations is screwing up the family reunions, he asserts. There are no registration tables, no control, "just bedlam." People arrive on buses to join their loved ones only to learn that they left on an evacuation flight to Australia the day before. Furthermore, a black market is flourishing. Ration cards are being sold to ethnic Albanians living in town who sneak into the camp and then register for asylum, using the cards to "prove" their refugee status -- UNHCR puts the number of illegals at 200 a day. The real refugees then ask for new cards, claiming they've lost theirs. And what about the heat? Ed wonders. Summer here is blistering. This airfield, great for pitching tents because it is so flat, has no trees. They need to figure out how to provide some shade. Maybe NATO could string up camouflage netting? Ed stops to take a breath.

"Did anyone find that woman, yet? The catatonic one?"

Chris shakes his head. She had appeared out of nowhere the other night, with a towheaded boy who looked to be about 3. Some worried refugees had come to Chris. A madwoman, they said, with a child. Chris found her in front of a small campfire near an old crop-duster.

"We were all sitting there in the dark, throwing little bits of paper into the fire. The woman wouldn't say anything, and if you tried to touch her, she'd start thrashing," he recalls.

What's her problem? Chris had asked the others.

She is possessed by demons, came the reply.

An old man held up a Coke bottle filled with what he described as holy water. If the woman drank it, he promised, she would be cured. Okay, said Chris. His time in Africa and Haiti had taught him to just go with the flow when it came to voodoo. But the woman refused to drink. Chris appealed to the German Red Cross, which runs the camp hospital, but the doctor on duty refused to help, insisting that psychotics fell under the category of "social cases" -- the responsibility of the French-run Medicins du Monde clinic, which had long since closed for the night.

Chris finally brought some water, rations and blankets to the woman, who fell asleep with her son beneath the plane's wing. When he came back to check on them before dawn, they were gone.

For days, he keeps asking people the same question, with studied nonchalance: Have you seen the mother and child?

No one has, and finally he stops looking, their fate not his to determine.

He was always cold and there was never enough food.

The memories of the 21/2 years he spent in a draconian English boarding school are still painful to Chris even after all this time, and given what he has experienced since then, it seems puzzling that this would assert itself as the worst time of his life. What of the two years he spent in Ghana as a young Peace Corps volunteer, subsisting on a native diet that, together with the typhoid he contracted, stripped 70 pounds off his 6-foot-2 frame? What of the malnourished children and mutilated villagers and other atrocities he witnessed day in and day out in Rwanda and Zaire? Or the countless lives he could never save because war and greed and cynicism made it impossible to provide food or water or medicine in a world that has plenty of all of these things? What of the sniper fire and mortar rounds and land mines that could have killed him?

The answer is choice. Choice is the difference between adventure and ordeal.

Chris is bitter when he recounts how he and his boarding school classmates would break into the larder at night just to steal bread to eat. Yet he is funny and nostalgic when he speaks of his later hunger as a young man in Africa, where a three-foot-long dried iguana and weevil-infested beans were once the only things in his cupboard to eat.

He is a child of the world, an American diplomat's son who pulled up roots eight times before he was grown, hopscotching across the western part of Europe and the eastern part of Africa. His family was living in Norway when Chris was ready to enter high school, and he ended up in England. The canings, the hunger, the cold are still vivid in his memory. "I could never do that to a child," Chris says, meaning send them away to school.

Chris was fresh out of the University of Maryland, thinking he might want a career in journalism or international relations, when he joined the Peace Corps and landed in a remote Ghanaian village, ostensibly to teach English at the Obugu Agricultural Technical College, which grandly referred to itself as "The Oxford of the Ashanti." Chris soon discovered it was a diploma mill operating out of three mud huts. Disgruntled students would gather at Chris's place at night to drink palm wine and vent; they wanted a real education. Chris told them they were being ripped off, that they shouldn't stand for such treatment. When he went away for the weekend to the capital, he picked up a newspaper and read that rioting students had burned down the Oxford of the Ashanti and beaten the headmaster. The students may not have gotten an education, but Chris did.

Every morning, representatives from the various relief agencies working out of Stenkovec gather to compare notes and discuss what must be done. Chris runs the meeting each day, "same Bat time, same Bat channel," he likes to say. He moves through business briskly: The doctors have no epidemics to report, but there are eight newborn babies. New latrines are being built, social workers have set up a center for battered women and rape victims, the Macedonian police want the kiosks to stop selling beer, and just about everybody has some complaint about the Spikes of Goodness.

The Muslim group has fashioned itself a tent fortress enclosed by low chain-link fencing draped with white cloth. No one can really see what's going on in there. They claim to be a humanitarian organization based in Skopje, and have permission from the Macedonian government to be here. They can, in fact, sometimes be seen handing canned goods and soap and cheap plastic toys over their fence to refugees. They can also be seen driving slowly around the camp after midnight in sputtering little cars or windowless vans. When Chris confronts them, their explanations are vague. Suspicions mount: They're selling young refugee brides with visas to the highest bidder, they're smuggling weapons, they're dealing drugs, they're recruiting for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

"There are a lot of weird rumors," Chris allows. "It's hard to put a finger on any hard evidence. I heard it could be a family shakedown operation. They have the support of some Macedonian government minister, though, which makes it tricky."

An ethnic Albanian member of CRS's team has done reconnaissance. Now he reports back. "They are so nice, so polite when you approach them. They act like they are only doing good," he scoffs.

"Maybe they are nice, maybe they are doing good," Chris responds. "Why do we suspect them, anyway? Because they're radical Muslims?"

Political undercurrents in the camp make the humanitarians nervous. Neutrality offers an illusion, at least, of calm and order and goodwill. But the air here is full of unspent rebellion. When several dozen children march through the camp chanting KLA slogans, Chris tries to ferret out the organizers. The refugees insist it was spontaneous, all the kids' idea. No one buys this.

"Someone had to teach those kids those slogans," says Ed.

There have been other rumblings, too. Angry demonstrations outside the Macedonian police post after a refugee caught going through the fence was allegedly roughed up. Apache attack helicopters drawn on the sides of tents. People cheering and chanting NA-TO! when a military truck trundles past or patrol chopper whirs overhead. Children in a camp-run preschool painting a banner intertwining the American flag and that of the KLA. Chris ordered the school to remove it, but it stayed up for two weeks. Finally an assistant camp manager, a burly Austrian named George Zudik, yanked it down.

"Are they angry?" Chris had asked, coming upon George, standing with the ripped banner in his hands amid a group of wildly gesticulating refugees.

"I don't care," George had answered loudly.

Chris privately admires his brazenness but worries that George will turn up with a knife in his back. He knows the potential for violence is there; he has felt it simmering and seen it flare once already, when a lynch mob took off after a Gypsy man accused of stealing. Chris had pushed and shouted them back to their tents. "If nothing else, 50 years of socialism taught these guys to be obedient," he says approvingly.

Over Chris's radio, a stranger's voice cuts through the static. The Serbs are jamming the frequency again.

"Yankee, go home."

Welcome to Refugeeworld. Chris thinks they should start charging admission, maybe $40 a pop, bring the kids, spend the day. The cavalcade of stars quickly turned into a royal pain for the people who run Stenkovec and have better things to do than arrange photo ops and sanitized tours. There was actor Richard Gere, who went into a weird Barney mode and wanted to hug the U.S. ambassador. British Prime Minister Tony Blair breezed through for all of 20 minutes. Bianca Jagger put in an appearance. Hillary Clinton's visit was such a security nightmare that they ended up corraling off a small corner of the camp just for her, like a special exhibit of refugees. People found themselves fenced within a fence.

Now more than a dozen aid workers are standing around waiting for a U.S. Senate delegation, which is more than an hour late.

Chris wanders around the windy hilltop where the big white VIP tent is pitched, overlooking the camp. His mobile phone is cradled to his ear.

"She still have her cast on?"

His 6-year-old daughter, Mayan, broke her arm on a friend's backyard trampoline back home in Haiti the other day. Chris is a single dad; his estranged African wife lives in Burundi. He feels guilty for not being with Mayan. The nanny managed fine, but the crummy public hospital put the cast on too tightly, cutting off circulation in Mayan's fingers. Chris made long-distance arrangements for a private doctor and new cast. When he's on assignment, Catholic Relief pays for one 15-minute call home a week, which Chris considers chintzy. He talks to Mayan and her 14-year-old brother, Frank, every couple of days. His phone bill's going to be astronomical.

The various relief representatives are growing irate, waiting for the American politicians.

Ed has a glazed look. He's been on 32 days straight now, usually coming to work early and leaving hours after his shift ended. The fatigue has clicked into overdrive now, and Ed is talking too much, too fast, saying that what he hates, really hates, are the two phrases he keeps hearing over and over here: Not our mandate; and, We don't deal with individual cases.

Chris has known this same type of adrenaline overload -- there was a time he worked seven months without a day off in Rwanda, "but that was different. It was life and death. This is tedious. There is no reason to kill yourself so people get their bread an hour earlier or to lessen fraud a little. It's not worth it."

The six senators finally arrive. The UNHCR and CRS people have prepared a briefing, but Ed is barely three sentences into it when the delegation chairman, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, cuts him off, suggesting they finish it up later, on the bus ride down the hill to the camp. The senators then offer their own observations, with Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio saying they must all pray to the Holy Spirit that world leaders solve this quickly and peacefully. The fact-finders then ask to have their pictures taken, draping their arms around the muted relief workers. On the bus down to Stenkovec, no one asks for the briefing to resume.

At the camp, the senators agree to meet back at their coach in an hour. Chris accompanies Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat he has heard good things about. He starts to tell Harkin about food distribution, but Harkin is busy snapping pictures with two different cameras.

Chris was hoping for some insight into the long-term prognosis for this situation. Should they winterize the tents? Dig fire breaks? Will this be a permanent population of refugees, the new Palestinians? What's the thinking in Washington?

Harkin wants to meet some refugees, and people are coaxed from their tents.

"Tell me your story," Harkin urges a teenage boy in a Nike cap.

"They came and burned our houses. Ten people were massacred."

Chris wants to know the U.S. policy on granting asylum to Kosovar refugees. "Senator," he blurts out, "we've got 20,000 on the books, you think if this continues we'll up that?"

"Oh, sure," Harkin says easily. "I think we're prepared to do," he flings his arms into the air, "whatever."

The wind is kicking up, the flying dust making people wheeze and rub their eyes. Harkin wants to meet more refugees. He trains his digital camera on a woman and her two sisters. She tells him their town was among the first attacked by the Serbs, that her family has been on the move for a year now. She swipes at tears.

"We don't know what to do. Better dead than this kind of life."

Harkin lays a hand on her shoulder. Other refugees begin to crowd around, sensing drama. The sisters have an uncle in Denmark. "We must keep up the pressure on Milosevic," Harkin is saying, "you have a right to return to your homeland." The women repeat that they have applied for asylum in Denmark.

Chris catches up later with Ed and delivers a comic, stand-up version:

"What a pathetic wiener," Chris declares. "These guys come in here, get hopes up and then he zips back to D.C., and we deal with the fallout. These people don't give a damn what Tom Harkin does, they want to know why they're not on the list, when they can get out. He's going on about how he was in Kosovo in November and he's said this for a while and launching into this geopolitical strategy and the refugees are crying and saying `We wanna go to Denmark and be with our Uncle Squiggy!' "

He cracks Ed up. The senators, meanwhile, have homed in on the CNN satellite truck and are jockeying to deliver sound bites. The wind blows with a cold fury now, a full-fledged dust storm, dust burrowing into everyone's pores, their eyes, their lungs, lodging between the teeth and leaving behind the faintest taste of dirt as the tour bus departs Refugeeworld.

He had never known terror like this before.

It happened maybe five years ago, the night before he was due to leave Rwanda for a vacation by the sea. Chris was lying in bed, suddenly sick and dizzy. The room seemed to grow smaller and smaller, the walls pressing in on him. He couldn't move. He was drenched in sweat, gasping for air, fear sucking the oxygen from his lungs. "Like hanging onto your very sanity by your fingernails," he recalls now, finishing his dinner of tasteless pizza and warm Coke in a smoky Skopje bar just before midnight.

The symptoms were gone by morning, Chris remembers, and he wrote the episode off as a bad reaction to antibiotics. Then it happened again a few years ago. Same paralyzing fear, stomach lurching, room spinning. He mentioned it to another relief cowboy, who had experienced the same mysterious illness and gave it a name.

Anxiety.

In his briefcase, he keeps a research study downloaded from the Web about panic attacks in relief workers; an intellect's talisman. Maintaining control, or at least the illusion of it, is crucial to him in his inner world even as he seeks out chaos in the outer one. When his marriage ended six years ago, Chris stopped smoking and drinking, replacing addictions to both with an incessant need to chew toothpicks. He keeps them in a special tooled-leather case inside his breast pocket.

"Gave up all vices at once," is how he puts it, though the truth is clearly more complicated and painful. His wife was a Rwandan refugee; he met her at a party years after her family had fled to Burundi. There was never a formal divorce, and Chris explains how he got the children with diamond-hard flippancy:

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law. I put the kids in the car and drove off with them."

Their mother later agreed that he was more fit to raise them, he adds.

He carries pictures of Frank and Mayan with him to the disaster zones, and promises them presents when he gets home. When he is angry, he scolds them in French, their mother's language, because he is less likely to swear. More likely to maintain control.

What he does for a living feels good, he says, when he can directly link the food or medicine he has provided to a life saved. But that fulfillment isn't what he most often feels. Most often what he feels is "overwhelming sorrow at the unfairness of it all."

He thinks about the nuns he met back in Haiti who run a home for severely retarded children and AIDS babies, how much tougher their job is than his. "It's easy to feel pity for those creatures and then walk away," he says.

He's not sure what triggers the anxiety attacks, exactly. Maybe it's always there, building inside him, and it's only when he is no longer consumed by whatever calamity is around him, only when he is about to go on vacation and let go, that he finally gives himself permission to feel the horror.

This is the one image that haunts him:

A woman is lying dead in the middle of the street in Burundi. The army would go into Hutu neighborhoods at night and massacre people, and the survivors would line up the corpses the next morning in the streets, as roadblocks to thwart the invaders.

"You would drive this slalom course between bodies," Chris is recalling.

"The first body I saw that morning was a thin, middle-aged woman, in African cloth."

What Chris noticed was how pretty her ankle was. The incongruity of that thought still bewilders him. How swiftly his brain disengaged from the horror. How efficiently.

How truly mundane this crisis has become hits Chris when he stops off at CRS headquarters in Skopje on the way to work and his nemesis, the chief bean counter, not only wants the Land Rover, but demands to know where two dozen CRS baseball hats have gone. Chris testily responds that they are on pointy little senator heads and he will never see them again.

"CRS is awash in money from this emergency," Chris complains later to Ed. "Why can't everyone just have what they need?" He's right about the money: more than $15 million in donations so far for CRS alone, plus promised-but-not-yet-seen funding from the United Nations for managing Stenkovec. CRS plans to reopen its Pristina office when it is safe to return to Kosovo, and has drafted a five-year plan for rebuilding there, focusing on educational programs aimed at quelling nationalism in future generations.

But even on the eve of peace, the uncertainty over what will happen to these refugees, and the lack of coherent long-term planning is evident at Stenkovec, making the relief workers as well as their charges anxious. The U.S. government has dispatched someone to start a refugee cybercafe; an Austrian wants to launch a sports therapy program for disabled refugees; nearby land has been leased to build a school. When Chris is out at 3:30 one morning guiding new arrivals into their tents by flashlight, a perky American woman turns up from the U.S. Embassy, saying she's just checking to see whether the latrines have sufficient lighting. "Clearly a spook," Chris tells his colleagues later.

Ed is back at the camp despite a double shift the day before. He is supposed to be taking time off. The policy stipulates 20 days on, five off. Chris taps his watch in irritation. Ed has been shopping in town for a gift for a camp volunteer, a young refugee who turned down a seat on an evacuation flight to America the day before, saying he wanted to stay and see this through.

"I bought him a watch," Ed confides.

"You should've bought him a brain," Chris suggests.

Chris could use some rest himself. He's developed a dry, hacking cough. Bread is being distributed off the same truck used to haul garbage. Refugees are using vacated tents as toilets. Chris's patience with this whole Balkans mess is wearing thin.

"There's no doubt this is a political crisis," he believes. "I'm an American, so I root for the underdog, and these guys are clearly underdogs in Europe, but when they return to Kosovo, the might of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund is going to follow them. I prefer the truly forgotten people of the world."

The evacuation process is progressing slowly. Forty countries have offered the Kosovar refugees a total of 137,000 places; less than half are already taken. Eastern European nations like Romania are willing to take virtually anyone immediately, without the arduous vetting process of the United States or Germany, and Albania is likewise wide-open -- but few are willing to go. Ed and Chris refer to the delegate from the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia as the Maytag repairman, the loneliest guy in the world. The Slovenian even tacked tourist brochures outside his tent, hoping to entice some of the refugees who were practically bowling over the Finnish tent next door. The whole asylum bottleneck can be summed up, in Chris's mind, by the T-shirt he saw a refugee wearing: "Here today," the slogan read, "here tomorrow."

It is easy to spot the lucky ones invited for an interview by a potential host country. The children are usually scrubbed rosy and wearing their best clothes, the little girls sometimes in party dresses their fleeing families managed to pack. The mothers wear heels and flowered dresses. The men sport fresh haircuts from the open-air barber shop that sprung up to shave the heads of children with lice.

Rumors course through the camp of people bribing their way onto flights or buying visas. People begin to fear that their names are no longer in the database. Every day, all day, a thick crowd surges against the fence surrounding the white trailer where UNHCR's officers work. The refugees all want to know when they will be going, why they haven't been accepted yet by the country of their choice, what will happen next. They hold out documents certifying their "most vulnerable" status because they are ill or elderly or pregnant or single mothers with small children. More than once, beleaguered UNHCR workers have snapped down the blinds on the trailer windows because they could not bear to look any longer into the imploring faces on the other side. Aurvasi Patel, the UNHCR supervisor, tells Chris she has resorted to interviewing asylum-seekers in a car with the doors locked and the windows rolled up, trying to seal herself off from them all.

"Humanitarians tend to like humanity," Chris will say, "but not human beings."

Another UNHCR official buttonholes Chris after the morning debriefing and launches into a long diatribe against the various asylum scams -- the black-market ration cards, the people who show up at the gate in taxis and lie about having relatives inside the camp, the ones who register under multiple names.

"I am so tired," she declares. "I have no pity left for these people. I think they're all crooks."

Chris is exasperated, too.

"What is the requirement of a relief agency?" he demands heatedly. "To provide safety, shelter and a minimum standard of living -- not safe passage to the ideal country of their dreams. [Expletive] them if they only want Germany or the States."

That night, three buses arrive with 80 new refugees. Working late, Chris is done processing them within an hour. He spies a sleepy toddler and scoops him up into his arms. He dips the baby toward the stacks of rations. "Look, we got juuuuuice, we've got ba-naaa-nas," Chris coos. There have been nights when buses have disgorged 5,000 people. Maybe things really are winding down; maybe this really will end soon.

Just as he's getting ready to head back to his hotel, a small crisis erupts. A family of 10 scheduled to leave on an 8 a.m. flight to Canada has two relatives stuck in Stenkovec 2, a sister camp half a mile up the road. This particular snafu is UNHCR's to fix, but the agency is unstaffed overnight, and Chris can't reach anyone. His mobile phone has gone dead. "Tops," he says in disgust. "CRS didn't pay the bill. I was supposed to call my kids tonight."

The family obviously could be reunited in a matter of minutes simply by driving over and picking up the missing members, "but I have no authority to move people," Chris laments.

"HCR is what the world has created to handle this," he adds. "Badly."

The first time, you want to save all the babies, gather them in your arms, take them far away, fill their empty bellies, keep them safe. You never get used to it, but after a while you come to terms with your own insignificance.

A relief cowboy knows better than to try to compare human suffering, or world response. Disparity and injustice stopped bothering him a decade ago, Chris claims.

"You learn that it's not a zero-sum game," he says.

The worst place he has ever seen was probably Zaire, Chris says. One day there were 20,000 people at the border. "A lot had machete wounds, they were just lying there in mud and blood, but they were the lucky ones in that war. I'm sure there are worse things in human history, but I can't think of one."

It is neither idealism nor altruism that motivates him. He hates the term do-gooder. "That's such a hideous epithet." Too naive and ethereal, he thinks.

"I think the motivation is to recapture the adventurous, exotic life I first got a taste of in the Peace Corps," he says. "I do this job because I like this job, and part of what I like about it is the intensity of emotions you feel, and danger is one of them."

The hardest lesson to learn, Chris found, comes down to this: "People are [expletive]. There is absolutely no limit to the evil they will do to each other." He does not consider himself exempt.

He does this not because he knows fate might have easily made him a victim, but because he realizes that given certain circumstances, "I could just as easily be the one wielding the machete."

When the Kosovars began fleeing, and the commentators began comparing "ethnic cleansing" to the Holocaust, and NATO began dropping bombs, Chris fired off an e-mail volunteering for Macedonia duty.

"Everybody wants to be part of something that's bigger than themselves," he admits. "What's better than being part of history in the making?"

But what he was looking for was already gone by the time he reached Macedonia just a few weeks after the crisis began.

David Holdridge, the CRS regional director and Chris's boss, describes it this way:

"Adrenaline levels at first were soaring. It was breathless in many ways. Buses were streaming in at night and it was cold and raining. It was like a boomtown in the gold rush, just the excitement.

"You had 30,000 people who had experienced the most tragic event of their life, the most intense, and you throw all of them together behind a fence. It was like an emotional magnet, all this tragedy compressed between those fences."

Relief workers were refusing to leave when shifts were over, returning hours before they were scheduled to, desperate just to feel it.

The high quickly evaporated. "Now it's just long hours and hard work," Holdridge says. Holdridge would like Chris to stay on, but he has other plans. His girlfriend is meeting him in Paris for a week. Then he'll pick up the kids in Haiti and bring them to the States to spend time with their grandparents in Maryland.

After that, who knows?

He's applied for a job with a U.N. agency in Burundi. His son will be ready for college soon, and it would double his modest salary. And he longs to go back to Africa because life there just seems more vivid, so much larger and more meaningful.

Chris gazes up at the cloudy sky and says, "Bad day for bombing."

Forty-four bus loads of refugees came in overnight, 5,000 people. Ed was on duty, he is still hyper this morning, giddy. A Swiss disaster relief team arrives to pitch more tents, but Chris doubts they'll be able to create enough space for the untold numbers yet to come today. Some of the tents erected at the beginning of this crisis are starting to rot and smell. Others had to be burned.

There are other reasons to worry about overcrowding. The relief workers have been detecting a growing tension in the camp. Small incidents -- scuffles, shouting matches, temper tantrums. By themselves meaningless, together, a warning.

Aurvasi Patel assures Chris that Stenkovec is last on the list to receive more refugees today. Chris, skeptical, takes a quick ride to the border to check out the situation for himself. He learns that a 22-car train full of refugees is waiting on the other side. He and Ed got into trouble with UNHCR for making a border jaunt the other day; they had walked into Kosovo and approached Serbian guards. Ed had chatted them up, asking how many people were coming, how long they thought they might be here, whether they got any overtime. (Don't know, don't know, no were the answers).

At 3 in the afternoon, back at the camp, Aurvasi is standing next to Chris, talking into her radio, when suddenly she lets out a shriek.

WHAT?" She turns to Chris. "Ten buses are here!" They were supposed to go to Stenkovec 2. Aurvasi marches to the front gate, vowing to turn them around. She radios Chris five minutes later: Mission accomplished.

At 3:50, the 10 buses reappear at the front gate. Aurvasi again chases them away.

Ed reappears, looking feverish, his voice hoarse. He called Chris twice to say how sick he was, to cover his shift, that he was going to the hospital in town.

Now Chris greets him icily.

"Charlie Psychotic Nut," he says.

Ed ignores him, mobile phone glued to his ear.

At 4:45, Aurvasi approaches again. "It seems there is a major [foulup] today," she announces. "Stenkovec 2 says there is no way they're taking people, so we're taking 10 buses."

Chris snaps at Ed: "Are you here or not, because I need to know who's in charge." Ed, on the phone again, waves him away. Chris stalks off.

"If he's in charge, [expletive] him, I'm going home," he says out loud, to no one and everyone.

A few minutes later, Ed approaches with a quizzical look. Did Chris want to talk?

"You have time for me?" Chris's voice drips with sarcasm. "Your phone is not going to ring? Are you here or not?"

Ed smiles nervously, tries humor. A mistake.

"Charlie Charlie, am I detecting a little frayed nerves?"

"No! Frustration with the lack of consistency on your part."

"Now you know how I felt when you first came . . ."

Chris spins on his heel. "Let's not get into that," he warns.

Ed calls after him, says he's going to the doctor now, if that's okay with him.

Chris is eating throat lozenges like gumdrops. He's had this damn cough for five years, it turns out. French doctors in Benin snaked a tube into his lungs and ruled out TB. The cough comes and goes. It's worse when he's tired and stressed.

They're all starting to burn out. One of the sunnier members of Chris's team confessed to him earlier that she had dreamt of tying up the refugees and imprisoning them in wicker baskets. Chris never dreams of them himself.

The unwanted buses finally pull in at 6:45, the weary people inside having been volleyed back and forth between feuding camps for over two hours. "Has anyone given them juice or water?" Chris wonders aloud. Hundreds of refugees come to greet the buses, searching anxiously for the faces of missing relatives and friends.

A boy with polished English approaches Chris and says he arrived by himself the day before and wants to join his family in Germany. "I'm sorry, I have nothing to do with that," Chris says. "We do food, tents, water." The boy is 16. Chris tells him evacuations take three or four weeks. The boy blinks in surprise.

"Keep pushing them," he tells the boy. "You have to keep pushing."

"I understand," the boy says. "Thank you, sir."

"Push," Chris calls after him as the boy slowly disappears into the dusty crowd.

The world is changing again.

In a few days, he will be in Paris with his girlfriend, who is hinting that she would like more of a commitment from him than Chris thinks he'll ever be able to give anyone.

After Paris, he will be eating Big Macs with his kids in Bethesda. Doctors now think his cough might be a parasite in his lungs, so he'll probably have to get that checked out.

NATO troops are moving into Kosovo, and Chris figures that the refugees who want to go home will be gone by the end of summer. Madeleine Albright visited the camp today, and Chris served as tour guide. He watches himself on the news back in his crummy hotel room. When he tells Mayan on the phone that he's on TV, she is dubious.

"I thought only stars were allowed on," she says.

"I am a star," he retorts.

He doesn't tell her how dangerous it's become here, how peace has burned the last bit of fuse on the powder keg, how a refugee just today drew a finger across his throat and vowed to kill him because he would not tell him where the man's battered wife was hiding.

A few nights ago, there was a full-blown riot. Thousands of bloodthirsty refugees hunted down a Gypsy family in one of the tents, vowing to kill them because of alleged complicity in Serb atrocities back home. The men were badly beaten, and Ed had to wrest a 7-year-old boy from the mob when the Gypsies sought refuge in the CRS offices. Chris spent five hours holed up with them during the siege. The U.S. ambassador came and restored calm by reminding the refugees that peace was at hand.

The prospect of returning to Kosovo stirs panic as well as passion in the camp, and the clamor for visas to Western countries intensifies. Desperate refugees storm and nearly overturn a bus waiting to take a fortunate few to the airport for a flight to Sweden.

Then, another riot, this one staged by paid provocateurs, Chris suspects. A few hundred men waving hammers and tent stakes, raging through tent alleys late at night in search of more Gypsies.

"This is just the beginning of a whole new phase," Chris believes. "It ain't over yet."

It never is.

Coughing, the relief cowboy closes his eyes to find some peace in his dreamless sleep.

Tamara Jones is a staff writer for the Magazine.

CAPTION: Chris Hennemeyer helps an elderly woman arriving at Stenkovec 1 refugee camp in Macedonia. Below, people strain to see who's on the bus.

CAPTION: There were days at Stenkovec 1 when buses disgorged 5,000 people. Above and left: Refugees, many of them cordoned off by police tape, wait anxiously to see if missing relatives, friends or neighbors are among the latest to arrive. Far left: Chris answers a question.

CAPTION: Built by NATO troops in early April on a dirt airfield not far from the Kosovo border, Stenkovec 1 covers 70 acres and sheltered more than 30,000 refugees at its peak. Right, Chris makes rounds in a Land Rover; far right, he shakes hands with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

CAPTION: Unlike Chris, Ed Joseph, left, considers himself a "Balkans guy."