SUN., JAN. 14—IT'S THE FIRST day of the new year in Eastern Orthodox Serbia—and Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia is watching a Swiss army knife slice into the five boxes of precious cargo that she has delivered to Belgrade. Krsto Vranic, director of the Institute of Orthopedic Prosthetics for Rehabilitation, does the honors—unearthing a pile of child-size prosthetic hands that look like doll parts, then rummaging through Styrofoam peanuts to retrieve legs and arms crafted for adults. Faintly macabre, each custom-made prosthesis represents a human limb lost in the four-year war that has shattered the country where Elizabeth's father once was prince regent.

Downstairs, 370 men, women and children (Serbs, mostly, and some Croats and Muslims) are learning to live with their mangled bodies. Until last December, humanitarian aid was hampered by the war, and the hospital improvised with clumsy prosthetic parts in stock for years. But rapacious border officials and economic chaos still prevail; importing supplies is only slightly less challenging than it once was. "There are no words to say, 'Thank you,' " the perspiring Vranic tells Elizabeth, a glamorous figure in horn-rims and a sleek Carolina Herrera suit. "Every tiny hand will help."

Although this $25,000 shipment represents a year's work for the Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia Foundation, Elizabeth looks grave rather than jubilant. She has been on more than a dozen missions like this one, and has learned, she says, that "you can't get caught up in the emotion because otherwise you're no good."

When she descends to the wards, however, it is difficult to remain detached. Dim hallways that reek of stale sweat and Turkish tobacco are lined with people slumped in wheelchairs or leaning on crutches. Uncomfortable in the sort of public role other royals might relish, Elizabeth speaks to the patients in a low voice, shaking hands with those whose arms are still intact. Petar Dragas, a burly Serb in nylon jogging pants, tells her that he is a medical technician who lost his legs to "a Muslim grenade." He is frank about his anger. "I was from Sarajevo," says Dragas, 28. "Now I don't know where I'm from. My family is there, but they will leave—nobody can give us security if the Muslims run the government." Later, Elizabeth will admit the visit was a strain. "It's worse when you see the pain close up," she says. "You can give people prosthetics, but you can't repair their lives."

At 60, Her Royal Highness Jelisaveta Karadjordjevic has seen her share of drama. Mother of actress Catherine Oxenberg and second cousin to Prince Charles, she became an expatriate at the age of 4, when her family was exiled after a coup d'état. Raised in Kenya (where she learned Swahili and "ate mangos in the bathtub"), the thrice-wed princess has been a socialite in London and the wife of a politician in Peru. By turns reserved and "totally zany," as Oxenberg puts it, Elizabeth reinvented herself in a world where royals are a glamorous anachronism. "It's been a constant identity search," she says.

Ironically, the princess has found her place among the people whom she might have served had her father never been deposed. Working from her compact penthouse in Manhattan, she channels her energy into the charity that she founded in 1990. With an assistant, she has staged five benefits, including last year's performance of the hit musical Bring In 'da Noise that raised $50,000. Added to funds from donors such as actor Karl Malden, the proceeds have been used over the years to provide supplies for hospitals, refugee camps and orphanages throughout the former Yugoslavia. And though she is contemptuous of red tape and "stupid bureaucrats who won't let you help," Elizabeth insists upon delivering the goods herself. "Otherwise," she says, "everything disappears into the black market."

Title or no, she feels a strong connection to those who have been uprooted by war. "I know what it's like to feel out of place," she says. And while from a distance she may look to be a dilettante, close friends see her as a woman with a calling. "She's never after personal glory," says Delia Roche Kelly, owner of an avant-garde Manhattan supper club. "She's a genuinely concerned person, but in a low-key, unfussy way."

"She's utterly fearless," adds son Nicholas Balfour, 25, who is a currency broker in London. "She doesn't seem brave when you meet her, but there isn't anybody she won't take on."

At Doctor Olga Dedijer, the Belgrade hospital where the Princess has stopped on Jan. 13 to visit a ward that quarters refugee children with their mothers, the only sign of holiday cheer is in a common room where a bristly evergreen has been hung with shards of tinsel. In many cases widowed and wounded by the war, the women sleep with their injured children in rooms festooned with damp laundry, lank balloons and pages torn from sports magazines.

The princess has brought chocolates and cosmetics—a small gesture but one that (in a facility where 50 women share one bathroom) she hopes will be therapeutic. "They are very proud," she says. "They're embarrassed to be seen this way."

In the chilly medical library, where several mothers sip coffee and inspect the toothpaste and hand cream she has brought, the talk becomes personal: "Can we ask, are you married?" says Radina Kosjerina, 34. "I was, but my husband died three years ago," Elizabeth replies. The group nods. "You are the Princess Karadjordjevic!" says a woman who has just arrived. "You are connected with Catherine Oxenberg? We know her from Dynasty."

"Do you have other children?" someone asks. Told that Elizabeth has three, the women murmur: "We wish they are all healthy and alive."

As the princess prepares to leave, the photographer in her party offers to snap each of the mothers at her side. Giggling, they straighten their backs and smile awkwardly as they face the Polaroid. Afterward they retreat into the hall and stare at the prints. "We have no memories here," explains Seka Jankovic, a lawyer from Sarajevo. "Everything we had was left behind."

Elizabeth was 50 before she began to reclaim bits of her own past. Born in Belgrade's White Palace, which her father had designed, she was the youngest child of Princess Olga of Greece and the Oxford-educated Prince Paul. In 1941, Adolf Hitler demanded that her father (who had been regent for seven years) sign a non-aggression pact. After pleading in vain for military support from the British, Paul complied with the Füthrer. He was branded a traitor by Britain, which had told him to hold off the Nazis with his own meager forces. On March 27, 1941, the prince was unseated by a military coup, and the family was given four hours to leave Belgrade.

Supervised by the British—who had arranged for Paul to be kept under house arrest—the Karadjordjevics were packed off to Nairobi, where they arrived with two maids, a nanny and their Scottish terrier. For two years—first in the tumbledown estate where White Mischief would be filmed in 1987, and later in a simple house nearby—they lived as political prisoners. By the time Elizabeth, her parents, and brothers Princes Alexander (who now lives in Paris) and Nicholas (who died in a 1954 car accident) joined relatives in Greece, Prince Paul "was a broken man," the princess says.

For her part, Elizabeth "spent her life running away from the fanfare that came from [being royal]," her son Nicholas says. Educated at boarding schools where "people expected me to be a snob," she says, she called herself Elizabeth George; at 23, she eloped with Howard Oxenberg, 40, a New York City businessman she had met on the slopes in Austria. (Their five-year marriage produced Catherine, 34, and Christina, 33, a writer.) In 1969, Elizabeth wed British politician Neil Balfour, but the marriage had faltered by 1974. That same year, her old friend Richard Burton was reeling from the failure of his first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. In London he rediscovered the princess; for six weeks the two were betrothed. Elizabeth walked out, however, when she discovered that even she couldn't save him from the bottle.

Romantic disappointments aside, Elizabeth never lost her spirit. Catherine remembers their London household—where pizza was once served to the Queen Mum during a blackout—as "exuberantly idiosyncratic." Says Oxenberg: "We'd go on mad adventures. Once we were flying to Iran, and the plane stopped in Athens. My mother said, 'Let's just get off.' We stayed for weeks, having a great time."

While her peripatetic life taught her to be "totally adaptable," Elizabeth felt spiritually adrift until 1987. That October, with new husband Manuel Ulloa (the late prime minister of Peru), she attended a conference in Budapest. There, Ulloa impulsively cornered a Yugoslavian minister and announced, "I want to take my wife to Belgrade." Three days later they boarded a train, and Elizabeth became the first Karadjordjevic to set foot in the country for nearly half a century. "I cried for 24 hours," she says. "I felt like a ghost."

Still, the one-day visit left Elizabeth with "a sense of my duty as a princess." The government opposition that she had expected never materialized, and she went back the following year; in 1989 she returned for several months. Over time, she taught herself Serbian (which her family had abandoned) and began looking for ways to help. "It was odd," she says. "My parents passed on the idea of service, but until then I'd had no one to serve."

On a frigid morning in Belgrade, a crimson carpet has been laid on the steps of the White Palace, now a reception hall for the president of the federal republic. The director attempts a gallant bow. "Welcome," he says to Elizabeth, who's made this pilgrimage several times. "This is your home."

The princess strolls toward the vast salon, inspecting the paintings chosen by Prince Paul—a Rembrandt, a Canaletto, a Poussin. Her family's property was confiscated in 1946, when the monarchy was abolished; and though much was sold, the library is still lined with Paul's leather-bound volumes.

"He was a scholar, my dad—not a soldier," says Elizabeth, caressing a book embossed in gold. "I detest injustice because of him." In 1980 she supplied research for a biography of Paul published in Britain and, later, in Yugoslavia. Its premise: that England not only had turned its back on Paul (who died in 1976) but had supported the coup against him. "Even though history is basically gossip," she says, "it's better to know the truth."

In the family quarters, Elizabeth walks through her mother's brocaded boudoir—the room where she was born. Now in a Paris nursing home, Princess Olga, 93, is befogged by age and Alzheimer's. "She's astonished that I came back here," Elizabeth confides. "She always says, 'Where have you been lately? How extraordinary!' "

And what would her father think if he knew that Elizabeth was ministering to other refugees? "He would be totally amazed and rather impressed," she says. "And he'd probably think I was quite mad."