Reporters gravitated to Fred Cuny when they visited Third World hellholes where they intended to stay just as long as the story was hot.
That was partly because they knew he’d been there and gotten the lay of the land when hardly anyone else cared. And partly it was because he seemed to radiate the complex and elusive qualities of competency and luck much sought after in such places.
The Man Who Tried to Save the World:
The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny
by Scott Anderson
374 pp., $24.95
When encountering Cuny in the shell-pocked alleys of Sarajevo, or asking a favor of him in a wretched little village in the Somali bush, a couple of things were clear. You knew that you were in the right place or Cuny wouldn’t be there. And you knew that if he said he’d do something, it would get done.
By the early 1990s, Fred Cuny had a well-established reputation as a star among humanitarian relief workers, the “Master of Disaster” as he was dubbed. But there always seemed to be more going on with Cuny.
There were vague rumors that he was aligned with the CIA or military intelligence agencies, even though that seemed to violate the first rule of spying in the real world: don’t look or act like a spy. And there were whispered criticisms from other relief agencies: that he got too cozy with the people he felt were being wronged, violating the imperative of moral neutrality some aid groups feel they need to maintain to function in war zones.
Cuny was an enigmatic figure, and when he disappeared in Chechnya in the spring of 1995, the mystery deepened. Relief workers and others drawn to war-ravaged places occasionally get killed. But Cuny’s death seemed to be more than the usual case of being in the wrong place when the mood turned deadly, or driving up to the wrong roadblock.
Scott Anderson, a reporter and novelist with years of experience in dangerous places, has taken on the subject of Cuny’s life and his apparent death in this exceptional book.
To label this book a biography would be to undersell it by quite a bit. It is also a rich and provocative exploration of the politics and realities of humanitarian relief as that game has come to be played in the post-Cold War world.
And within this book is vivid, textured writing worthy of a Graham Greene on the unique brand of frustration, fatigue, and fear that Westerners are exposed to when they involve themselves in the world’s trouble spots.
What motivated this man to spend his life in places like Bangladesh, Nicaraugua, and the Horn of Africa? Anderson gives an unsparing look into Cuny’s background and motivations without over-indulging in psycho-biography.
Cuny was raised in patriotic, conservative Texas in the 1950s and early 1960s. His dream was to be a Marine fighter pilot. He fell short of that because of academic problems and injuries. An early attempt at the prosaic life of husband, father, and breadwinner also ended in failure.
In 1969, Cuny, then a struggling civil engineer in his late 20s, took vacation time to work on the relief effort in Biafra. From this experience he dreamed up the notion of Fred Cuny & Associates with the vision that he would, in Anderson’s words, “expand out from a small apartment in North Dallas to wage battle against the poverty and social ills of the planet.”
And remarkably, that is pretty much exactly what happened.
Over the next three decades he would fine-tune and broaden his original inspiration, but the core of it was there from the start.
As Anderson puts it, “From his first exposure to it in the late 1960s, Fred had concluded that the international disaster relief system was pretty much a disaster itself . . . crippled at every step of the process by bureaucrats in Washington or Geneva working from political agendas . . . by local governments that were obstructionist or thieving . . . and by incompetent volunteers, ‘do gooders’ he disparagingly called them, [who] often only made matters worse.”
Cuny set about the quixotic task of reforming that system from within. But his efforts were thwarted much of the time, and he seemed doomed to obscurity and frustration. With the world locked in Cold War dynamics, humanitarian relief was frozen into a rigid formula dictated by politics.
Then, Cuny got the opportunity of a lifetime in the form of the great power vacuum caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The stage was set for a decade of growing prominence as Cuny’s models for a disaster-fighting coalition—one that would have the flexibility to incorporate the military, aid groups of various philosophies, and hard-headed realists from the disciplines of civil engineering and medicine—were put into practice in places like Iraq and Bosnia.
Cuny is credited with much of the success of Operation Provide Comfort, which not only saved the lives of many of the 400,000 Kurd refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s army in Northern Iraq in 1991, but also returned them to their homes instead of parking them in grim camps. And he accomplished near miracles of civil engineering in Sarajevo, helping to bring water and heat to that city in the midst of the deadly siege of 1994–95.
He was at the apex of his success when he vanished in the cauldron of fear and confusion that Chechnya had become in early 1995.
Cuny had gone there as an agent of billionaire philanthropist and self-styled economic philosopher George Soros. It was probably inevitable that Cuny and Soros would meet, given the maverick nature and impatience of each man with the status quo. As Anderson puts it, “With his donated millions, Soros meant not merely to address society’s ills, but to fundamentally change the course of society, and he found a kindred spirit in Fred Cuny.”
At first Cuny’s disappearance, along with three Russians working for the Soros Foundation, seemed a simple equation to unravel: had he fallen afoul of the Russians in Chechnya, or the Chechen Rebels, or was he the victim of some more personal vendetta?
But when Anderson traveled to the region as a journalist to explore the disappearance, he soon found himself immersed in a complex and subtle puzzle. It seemed both sides, and several subgroups within the warring factions, had motives to stop Cuny. Perhaps the years of rumors that he was spying for the CIA caught up with him. Or the Chechens may have felt he was giving intelligence to the Russians in return for access.
That Anderson’s book does not completely solve the mystery does not detract from its power.
Whatever finally caught up with Cuny, Anderson convincingly argues that his life stands as a worthy example for all those killed in the cause of trying to salvage parts of the world that are torn and bloodied.
The book explores why it has become so much more dangerous than ever before to attempt to help those caught in the clan, ethnic, civil and/or guerrilla wars which proliferated with the collapse of the Cold War.
Humanitarian organizations, ac-cording to Anderson, are “pondering whether the new barbarism that reigns on the world’s battlefields allows them to operate as they have in the past. If they decide they cannot—and each new slaughter of relief workers brings them closer to that decision—then the murderers win.”
Anderson was an exemplary choice to tell Cuny’s story. A veteran of numerous war zones, he is able to describe with gut-wrenching exactitude the dangers one faces there. The author knows how to recreate the dull buzz of fear one feels when headed in the direction of towns under artillery fire. And he knows how that buzz can become a roar in the head that threatens to overcome effective action when stopped at a checkpoint by armed, doped-up rebels or soldiers with no particular reason not to kill you.
An early section of the book describes Anderson’s preparations to retrace Cuny’s steps into a still-unstable Chechnya. While at first readers might find Anderson’s account of his own travels in Chechnya gratuitous, eventually his purpose becomes clear. The danger faced in places like Chechnya is an important part of Cuny’s story.
Anderson has created a multi-dimensional portrait of Cuny, and of the evolution of philanthropy in disaster zones. Still, at the end of the book, Cuny remains an elusive character to readers, as he apparently was to his son, ex-wife, and lovers.
Pascal wrote that “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” As Anderson said of Cuny, “Above all else, he was an enigma: a middle-aged man with health problems who compulsively returned to the world’s most dangerous and fetid corners at an age when most in his field had long since settled into air conditioned offices in government or private agencies.. . .”
Part of the answer with Fred Cuny seems to have been that he was a romantic, seeking a bigger and more ennobling image of himself. That is evidenced by the lists he compulsively wrote as a young man describing idealistic and unlikely goals such as sailing a Chinese sampan across the Pacific, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and designing a racing yacht. And it is seen in a poem written near the end of his life, and found after his death, which begins:
Do not mourn for me
For I have lived as few men have
With honor served
For those who God forgot.
As poetry it is clumsy, but as an epitaph it is a worthy one for an extraordinary man who lived long enough to find his life’s purpose in places few would dare to look.
Michael Hedges, a correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service, spent part of 1999 covering the refugee crisis and NATO intervention in Kosovo. He has reported on wars and military operations for the past decade, including the Gulf War, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, and Latin America.