He is a small, wiry man, met by chance on a sidewalk in a midwestern city.

Asked about his accent, he mentioned an obscure place, as improbably far from the heartland of America as any on Earth.

"All the same, we exist," he said. His reserved pride suggested that he might have been a visiting scholar.

But then he squinted at the watery sun, as though seeing it suspended at that instant over his homeland.

It was a look of such speculative longing that the question had to be asked: "Why are you here?"

"I have political asylum," he replied.

There are thousands like him in the United States, so many that they are an abiding cliche of the revolutions, counterrevolutions, coups, uprisings and wars against colonialism that have swept much of the Third World since World War II.

Sometimes ferocious, sometimes kind, they may be left, right, or center or simply people who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever their politics and practices, they mostly share a common fate: Their side lost.

And in many of the distant places these men and women call home, to lose is to face imprisonment or death.

Check behind the wheel of the next taxi you take. The driver may be Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Ethiopian, Filipino, South Korean, Chinese, Cuban, Cambodian, Vietnamese.

The foreigners American cities are sheltering seem like a more humble and less romantic version of the clientele at Rick's Cafe Americain in the movie, "Casablanca."

Once-important ministers of justice now wait on tables, physicians who ran a capital's only hospital mop floors, linguistics professors wash dishes.

But look again at these lucky ones who have escaped to live another day.

There seldom is such a thing as a clean escape. Someone is always left behind: son, wife, brother, parents. Hostages all.

So it is with this man.

To talk with him, over a shared meal, is to hear a story that is at once a stereotype of our jaded age of easy violence and something much more, a saga of barbarity, fear, endurance and luck.

His nation is primitive by the standards of the northern European industrial age that has flooded the world with high-powered assault rifles and other implements of instant political change.

But anyone who knows the place even a little knows its abiding traditions to be loyalty, courage, and vengeance.

Trouble erupted some years ago, when his nation's traditional regime suddenly crumbled. As is so often the case, the cutthroat old order was pro-American, the cutthroat new order pro-Soviet. For anyone with ties to the Americans, it was time to lie low.

But the chaos descended so swiftly that this man had no time to hide, much less escape.

He was arrested immediately and thrown into prison for months while interrogators sought to force him to confess to espionage and other crimes against the newly "liberated" people.

"Were you beaten?" he is asked.

"Of course," he said.

His legs and collarbones were broken, fingernails pulled out, front teeth smashed. He refused to confess. He was hospitalized to restore his strength so he could be tortured again.

While he was recuperating, a force of insurgents fought their way into the hospital and rescued him and dozens of other maimed victims of the new order.

Nursed back to health, the man was spirited out of his country to safety. But the Revolution exacted retribution: His oldest child was executed.

"No . . . no . . . . I can't talk about it. I can't," said the father, his face disintegrating into tears and anguish. "I won't speak to you about it."

He joined the opposition in exile and waited. Despite their barbarity, the forces of revolution seemed weak, destined to fail.

But it was not to be. Aided by Moscow, the new regime strengthened its hold on the nation's few cities. A pro-western insurgency developed in the countryside.

The initial wave of slaughter has continued ever since. "They are killing anyone who was a student."

Thousands have died, the country's economy is wrecked, its institutions in shambles. Each Great Power has a piece of the action and the blame.

The emigre turned his efforts to extricating his family from the country. Bribery played a role: Even national liberators who kill for their beliefs know that ideals need not get in the way of cash.

One by one, his immediate family escaped and joined him in safety. They made their way here. But one remains behind.

"I would like to tell you who it is . . . but I fear reprisal. My relative would be killed if the name is mentioned. Indeed, you must not say what country I am from, or even what relative is left there."

"It shames me as a man to think I dare not even mention the name," he said.

He has a job here and works hard at it. But his heart is elsewhere.

"I survive," he said. "But when I think of all the killing, the endless killing, I have times of sharp depression. It seems inhuman that my country should have this fate."