Dining at Zagreb's turn-of-the-century Esplanade Hotel, Joachim Krauskopf spots a familiar face. "Over the years, you get to know them, the nice men with briefcases selling you whatever you want," he says.

It's not surprising that Krauskopf can spot international arms dealers. A 44-year-old German with the lean physique and weathered face of a professional military man, he has served in many of the world's hot spots--he lost count after 30--during the past 19 years.

But Krauskopf is no soldier of fortune. He is a Knight of Malta, a relief worker for an organization so old it opened its first hospice in Jerusalem during the 11th century Crusades. Driven from their island base by Napoleon, the Knights of Malta have been quietly rendering emergency help from their headquarters near the Vatican.

Krauskopf is keeping alive a family tradition, both parents having cared for German casualties of World War II. His missions of mercy have taken him from Zimbabwe to Peru, from Nicaragua to Iran. Although the Knights of Malta respond to natural disasters as well as wars, Krauskopf has specialized in the latter. "War zones are always long-term assignments," he explains. "I don't like going somewhere just for a few weeks. I need time to evaluate the situation and put my concepts together."

When he arrived in Zagreb last summer, Krauskopf was a one-man hub for distributing millions of dollars' worth of humanitarian aid from various organizations to victims of Yugoslavia's civil war. Part policeman and part administrator, he has to make sure money and supplies aren't pilfered while managing a network of refugee centers, kindergartens, and soup kitchens. "He is one of the most effective relief workers I've dealt with," says Andrew Hannah, vice-president of AmeriCares, a relief group in New Canaan, Conn., that has funneled almost $20 million of medical supplies to Croatia through Krauskopf.

WHITE VAN. One cloudy day this spring, I accompanied Krauskopf as he escorted AmeriCares workers on a tour of hospitals along the front lines in eastern Croatia. He dressed for the occasion in the blue-gray Knights of Malta uniform, a red beret cinched under his epaulet and a pistol holstered on his hip. His local contact, a Croatian doctor, brought along another sidearm and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Our van--white with a flashing blue light on top--wasn't marked. But judging from the waves we got, people knew who we were.

The main Zagreb-to-Belgrade highway straddles the front line. Krauskopf said it was safer to take a slower route a bit to the north. We rode through shot-up villages surrounded by untilled fields, some sown with mines. About noon, we reached the old town of Dakovo and checked whether the hospital needed more supplies. Krauskopf and his Croatian colleague then took us to see the cathedral, its walls pockmarked by shells. A priest showed us around the undamaged interior and wine cellar and treated us to samplings from three bottles of his bishop's best Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

The glow from the wine faded a few miles down the road when we reached the devasted city of Vinkovci. One particularly vivid memory: the library, its walls blown out, exposing twisted metal shelves with books spilling off. Fighting was in progress, and Krauskopf arranged for a police escort to lead us to the five-story city hospital. Its entrance ghoulishly marked with a bloodstained cardboard sign, the hospital had been reduced by shelling to an empty hulk with a courtyard full of the blackened carcasses of ambulances. The only safe spot was the basement, where doctors had to duck under pipes as they worked.

Two explosions jolted us--mines or mortars, no one was sure. But Krauskopf and the doctor soon picked up another, more dangerous sound: sniper fire. They hustled us into the van.

WRONG TURN. As we headed back to Dakovo at dusk, the driver made a wrong turn, and we found ourselves on the lethal main highway. Krauskopf put the Kalashnikov on his lap. For an eternity, we searched for an exit. Finally, we turned around and retraced our route, and we didn't make it back to Zagreb until after midnight.

Officially, the Knights of Malta are barred from carrying weapons or entering battle zones without permission. But Krauskopf has his own rules. "You get an eye for danger," he says. "I won't take any silly chances." He has been shot once--in the leg in Nicaragua.

After a stint in the German defense forces two decades ago, Krauskopf says a blend of altruism and voyeurism drove him to volunteer for a handful of short-term relief missions. "At first, I was driven by an enthusiasm for relief work, a sort of 'disaster tourism,' " he admits.

Curiosity quickly turned into commitment. "My enthusiasm got even higher when I saw what mankind was doing to mankind for no reason whatsoever and, in fact, enjoying it," he says. "I knew the things I had done in the field were very little, but at least it was my share."

"There's nobody who wants to go to war zones," he adds. "I wouldn't say I like it, but not too many people are around from other organizations. I can more quickly see what needs to be done. With politicians and directors discussing whether we should go in and get killed, time is lost--time when people are suffering."

ROTTING FOOD. Burnout and frustration have pushed Krauskopf to the point of quitting several times. Last year, in Iraq, he almost did. "We had to fight for weeks and months to be admitted into the country. We literally had to fall down on our knees and plead," he says. Once there, Krauskopf was sickened by the waste and inefficiency: Tons of donated food rotted because of lack of refrigeration and transport. But once he saw the plight of Kurdish children, he was energized again. "The cause is always the government, but the children are always the ones who suffer," he says heatedly.

Krauskopf has little family life of his own. He never married, but during his military service, he fathered a daughter. Last summer, he raced back from Iraq to attend the daughter's wedding in Germany, but just missed it. He says he has no regrets for the path not taken: "I didn't have to give up anything. I don't know any other kind of life."

Perhaps. But there's an edge to his offhand comments, such as that the long hours help alleviate depression. And while he expresses satisfaction to be working in Croatia, he says he prefers to work really far from Germany, "on the other side of the globe some place."

Over coffee at the Esplanade, whose elegance and proximity to the railway station made it a popular stop on the old Orient Express, Krauskopf muses about his future. "I'll last another five, maybe six years," he says. Neither wars nor gunrunners will stop when he does. But it's comforting to know that, for a few more years at least, Krauskopf will be there to mop up after them.

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