A HERO OF OUR TIME
Fred Cuny was a great man: a tall Texan with a practical bent and a passion for women, he knew as much about war and catastrophe as anyone. He brought succour to dozens of disaster are.as, from Biafra to Sarajevo; then he vanished, presumed murdered hope and success to Biafra, Peru,Bosnia and Iraq: and then he went missing, presumed murdered, in Checknya?????????????
Sunday 04 February 1996
Cuny was a man of some mystery. An expert in dealing with man-made disasters, he had been both close to and critical of the US government. The demand for services such as his has, unfortunately, been growing fast. In the summer of 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned in its annual report that the human consequences of local wars and forced immigrations were becoming more and more grave. There were, the report said, 56 conflicts being waged around the world. Some 21 million people were being forced to leave their homes as a result, and of these at least 17 million became refugees. Another 300 million people were affected by disasters unrelated to war, such as earthquakes and floods. The Red Cross urged that fundamental changes be made in the way the world responds to disaster and suffering. One of the few people who actually showed how changes could be made was Fred Cuny. That is why his loss is such a disaster.
A VERY tall, strongly-built Texan, Fred Cuny was trained as an engineer and city planner and spent much of his life working abroad to help people - literally millions of them - who were in great difficulty, whether in Africa, South-east Asia, Kurdistan, Bosnia or Chechnya. He was born in 1944 and grew up in Forest Hills, Texas, the eldest of four brothers. His father, Gene, was a television station executive, and his mother, Charlotte, a teacher. When Cuny was a boy, his main passion was for flying. He first took flying lessons in his early teens, wanting to be a fighter pilot, and he hoped to get a Marine commission after graduating from college. But he was suspended in his second year at Texas A&M after a group of classmates placed burning car tyres in the wing of the dormitory where the seniors lived. It was the sort of escapade in which Cuny might well have been involved. No one in his own part of the dormitory was willing to inform on the others, so all of them were punished. Fred later moved to a smaller school, Texas Animal & Industrial College in Kingsville, Texas, about 120 miles from the Mexican border, where he joined the ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] to keep his military hopes alive.
In those days Fred Cuny was, according to his father, "to the right of Barry Goldwater". His self-confidence verged on arrogance. (Throughout his life his self-esteem was impressive, and to some, infuriating.) But one of his political science teachers, a liberal, encouraged his class to get involved in local issues. Cuny began to look into the conditions of migrant farm workers, some of them employed near Kingsville. As he got to know them, he changed his political views, took up their cause, and became active in local Democratic politics.
Cuny went to the University of Houston to study urban planning - a discipline which was later to prove invaluable. But one day he was hit by a taxi; his leg was crushed and he had to have a steel rod inserted in it. This ended his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot, and he abandoned all thought of military service. However, he continued to fly, and he particularly liked to fly gliders. Soaring, he told me, gave him great joy.
In the late Sixties, while working as a city planner, he was sent to various little towns along the Texas border that had serious sanitation problems. Mosquitos were everywhere and disease rates were high. His son Craig recalls that his father immediately saw that simply paving the roads would get rid of stagnant pools of water and enormously improve public health.
He began to realise that he had a special knack for finding practical solutions to problems; and he discovered that he liked working among the Mexicans on the border. Cuny talked about this years later, after we became friends, although he was usually reluctant to talk about his feelings. He preferred to tell tall stories, especially to shock his liberal aid worker colleagues. For example, he once said that the reason he got involved in humanitarian causes was that in the early Sixties, when he was in charge of building the runway at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, he suddenly found that "Miguel", one of his gang, had accidentally been buried under the cement. It was too late to save him. In fact, Fred was then working on designing the rail system between the different air terminals, not on laying down the runway. His view was that facts should never be allowed to interfere with a wider truth. But I think that something did happen to a man on the project which made him decide to change the direction of his life.
Cuny's experience in Biafra in the late Sixties had the most powerful effect on him, he once told me. The relief programmes during the civil war there - the first large-scale humanitarian efforts of the post-colonial period - were, he said, the "mother" of all such operations since. Many people who took part in them went on, like Fred himself, to work on relief programs for other disasters during the Seventies and Eighties.
"Biafra," he told a BBC interviewer, "was where we first came to grips with dealing with famines, and the different ways of dealing with them - either food aid or market interventions. We still use the yardstick of Biafra to measure our performance in other disasters. It's the defining moment."
CUNY had studied African history at college, and in 1969, at the height of the war between Nigeria and the Biafran government, which was largely made up of members of the Ibo tribe, he flew to Lagos. He went to see the Nigerian minister of the interior and said, "I'm from Texas. I'm here to study the war and try to suggest what can be done to get in humanitarian aid when it's over." The minister said, "That's interesting. Let's see your passport." He thumbed through it and ripped out Fred's Nigerian visa, saying, "We don't want anything to do with these damned Biafrans, and all you Americans that are helping them, and we want you out of here in 24 hours."
Cuny was taken to the airport under armed guard. He then flew to Biafra, offered his services, and found that he could be useful in organising the airlift which kept the new country briefly alive. The planes included ancient Constellations, C-97s, DC-4s, DC-6s, some left over from the Korean War, even from the Second World War: "Spare parts flying together in close formation, we used to say." The pilots included mercenaries, Israelis, Air America pilots from Vietnam who had come "to redeem themselves", idealists, war protesters. They were, Cuny said, "the world's largest flying zoo. Even in the crew of one airplane, you'd find five different reasons why people were there. Some guys were there simply for the adrenaline rush - that was big when you were flying in at night, turning the plane around under fire."
The aid groups involved included the Red Cross - as usual, the best organised - Inter-Church Aid, Care, and some ad hoc private groups. As always, they had different motives. Some workers were idealists trying to save the lbos, who were thought to be facing genocide; some states and companies had their eyes on the Biafran oil fields and were trying to break up Nigeria. "All sorts of political agendas were being played out through the air programs," Cuny said.
He quickly understood something that has been evident, and, not sufficiently understood, in many disasters since. Food distribution acted as "a gigantic magnet pulling people out of the fields into the towns and out of the towns to the airport. The first thing I recognised," he said, "was that we had to turn the system around and get people back into the countryside, away from the airfield."
The other huge problem was public health. "I kept thinking if we could just get people to start building better drains and focus on planning, far fewer people would be sick. In one of the camps the water was 20 inches high - simply because it was built on very low ground. But there were few engineers in the relief agencies in those days.
"People in the agencies would say, 'We don't know how to dig latrines.' I'd say, 'Well, the armies of the world have millions of manuals on latrine digging, you know. Can't you get some of those?' They said, 'We don't know who to approach.' "
IN THOSE days the relief agencies were very unprofessional. They concentrated on the most obvious things - often just handing out food. They didn't try to discover how people normally got their food and then try to restore, as much as possible, the usual system of distribution. The assumption, Fred said, was that "We had to bring everything in for them."
Seeing that engineers in the field were just as important as doctors and pilots, Cuny stopped helping to run the airlift itself and tried instead to see what could be done to prevent further famine. One of his first surprises was to find how much food there was in the markets. "There's always food in famines. The problem was that people in the rural areas couldn't afford to buy much of the food they were producing. They had to sell it to speculators and food was being hoarded."
Cuny had a radical solution. He said to some of the aid officials, "Let's bring in money, create a real currency, pump in dollars. It'll be a lot cheaper than having to fly everything in." The money could be used by the agencies to buy the food locally and then redistribute it. By then, however, few people were taking account of the actual situation. Horrifying accounts of Biafra's starving children appeared regularly on television and led to a single, emotional, worldwide reaction: "We must send food." The main concern of the relief agencies became control of the incoming food.
Famine, Fred saw, was selective, and often hidden. It affected between 15 and 20 per cent of the people. The groups at highest risk were children under five and mothers trying to protect them. "Families make a self-conscious or subconscious decision to transfer food within the family to support the working males - any boy over five. So, in rural societies an invisible thing happens - the kids of two or three years old simply die."
As for outsiders trying to help, they went, he said, through a series of stages. At first "there's a reluctance to touch anyone. You're afraid you're going to pick up a disease yourself. Then very quickly the kids break through that. They want to touch you, hold you. Next thing you know, you're carrying weak kids everywhere you go. You become involved with particular children. Then what you're doing is fighting famine for the individuals you know, and when you lose one you take it very hard."
When he was asked how he coped with the depressing effect of such situations, Cuny said, "Drinking and chasing women." (Some years later, a bout with hepatitis forced him to switch from whisky to Dr Pepper. He never gave up on women. His brother Chris said recently that after Fred was reported missing in Chechnya, women called the family in Texas from all over the world, saying that they had a special relationship with him.)
In Biafra there was a debate as to whether the airlift was prolonging the war - the debate has occurred in almost every comparable emergency since, most recently in Bosnia. The real worry, Cuny said, was that Biafran propaganda had convinced the world that the Nigerians would commit genocide if they won. "Nobody knew whether they would or they wouldn't, and it was the devil's decision. What do you do?"
ln 1970, towards the end of the war, Cuny became convinced that the food lift was indeed prolonging the war and that the rumours of genocide were much exaggerated. He left Biafra, losing some friends whose emotional commitment to the Biafran cause would not allow them to accept his conclusions. The Nigerian army, under General Gowon, turned out, in fact to be remarkably merciful in victory; and this, Cuny said, had an effect on the subsequent attitudes of relief workers. "In Cambodia, in 1975, we all felt at the end, 'Let's shut everything down and pull out. Let the government collapse. The Khmer Rouge can't be that bad.' And then look what they did. You can never know. It depends - a few personalities can change the whole thing."
AFTER RETURNING from Biafra, Fred Cuny founded a company called Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corpor-ation, based in Dallas, which specialised in giving technical assistance and training in disaster relief for the UN and volunteer agencies, such as the International Refugee Committee. In those days the idea of a private company engaging in humanitarian aid was unusual, and he made very little money. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, Fred "once wept and hugged a friend from the State Department who had helped him get small contracts that kept him solvent." On the other hand, he said, he discovered that people didn't listen to him unless they had paid for his views.
In the Seventies, Fred and Intertect were involved in dozens of disaster relief efforts in, among other places, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand and India. In Calcutta, his father recalls, he argued with Mother Teresa, telling her bluntly that her plan to build concrete housing was wrong for Calcutta's muddy soil. After the Guatemala earthquake of 1976, he recommended repairs to roads so that food could be delivered directly. He wanted to dispense with airlifts carrying both food and blankets - the arrival of blankets merely put local blanket-makers out of work. He tried to demonstrate to tribal councils of Guatemalan Indians how to rebuild the houses in their villages by using cross-braces to prevent roofs from crashing down in the event of another earthquake. He showed them how to recycle materials from their shattered houses - rather than rely entirely on new materials. Cuny was always tough about spending an unnecessary dollar, unusual in a world where the common response is to throw money at disasters. In 1977, after the Peruvian earthquake, he devised a scheme to make the houses much stronger and more stable by adding small amounts of motor oil to the manufacture of adobe.
Oddly, it was not until the end of the Eighties that Cuny began to be known to senior American officials. In 1988, when he went to Armenia after several earthquakes occurred there, Julia Taft, the Bush administration AID official who accompanied him, was worried when he insisted that the plastic sheeting they had brought with them be used for sheltering animals rather than people. Cuny convinced her that livestock was the only asset people had, and must be protected.
At the end of the Gulf war, Robert Fisk of the Independent saw Cuny in southern Iraq, where he was attempting to rescue some of the Shia Muslims who, with Western encouragement, had rebelled against Saddam Hussein, only to have the US and other Western nations stand by as Saddam crushed their revolt. When wounded Shias arrived in desperation at Allied lines, they were pushed back, until Cuny, backed up by one brave junior US officer, insisted that the lines be opened. "Americans should be helping these people, not turning them away," he shouted.
He then went to Kuwait to help to restore the city's devastated water supply, and to northern Iraq to help deal with the 400,000 Kurdish refugees who had fled to the mountains along the Turkish border after their own uprising against Saddam had failed. There he won the confidence of Morton Abramowitz, the American ambassador to Turkey. At a meeting held in memory of Cuny in Washington last September, Abramowitz, now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recalled that he was incredulous when Cuny told him that the Kurds could be returned to their own villages in two months. "I told him, 'Fred, you're full of crap.' but Cuny just went on talking non-stop, as he often did." After two hours, Cuny convinced the ambassador it could be done - and with the help of the US military forces, under General John Shalikashvili, he went on to organise one of the most successful refugee assistance programmes in recent decades.
Cuny insisted that, wherever possible, the Kurds must be returned to their own houses, or to abandoned houses, rather than placed in big tent cities, as some aid agencies were advocating. He wanted, as Abramowitz said, to save not just lives but the local way of life - to give people reason for hope by encouraging them to begin farming and trading again. And, in fact, the Kurds in northern Iraq have been able to reconstitute a society that functions better than most observers had ever expected.
"Fred Cuny was the expert on almost everything we did. To me he was the hero of that operation," General Shalikashvili said recently. After his success in northern Iraq, Cuny had little difficulty in gaining the attention of US officials, whether in the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, or AID, although his advice was often ignored. In the summer of 1992, Fred went to Somalia and reported that the situation was "one of the worst that relief agencies have ever faced." To see what could be done, he made his own study of the warring clans: he observed the markets in provincial towns, and analysed the international response to the food shortages caused by the clan wars. The feeding stations established by the aid agencies, he found, were acting as a magnet for rural Somalis, and food had become a form of currency. He recommended a US military intervention, but one that would be limited to protecting rural distribution of food, so that people in the countryside would not be drawn into towns. He pleaded with the commanders of the peace-keeping forces, particularly the American officials in charge, not to get involved in what he called "the concrete snake-pit" of Mogadishu clan politics. If they had listened to him, a disaster might well have been avoided.
After Somalia, Cuny went to Albania to help restore its school system, and then to Bosnia. In 1993, the billionaire financier and philanthropist, George Soros, decided to contribute $50m to alleviate the suffering in Bosnia. He sent a small group - including Mort Abramowitz, Aryeh Neier, president of the Soros Foundation, Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, and the aid expert Mark Malloch Brown of the World Bank - to Geneva, Zagreb and Sarajevo to find out how the money could be spent most effectively. Some of the UN officials they talked to in Geneva were not hopeful that much could be done.
"We decided to send for Fred," said Rosenblatt who, like Brown, had known Cuny since they had worked together in refugee camps in Thailand. When he arrived, Cuny decided that instead of spreading Soros's money thinly throughout Bosnia, it should be concentrated on restoring the basic utilities in Sarajevo - water, gas and electricity among them. At the end of 1993, I flew to Sarajevo with Soros, Neier and Rosenblatt. The huge Russian transport plane, hired by the UN, was filled with iron piping, purchased by Soros, which was to be used for one of Fred Cuny's plans - restoring the gas pipelines running through the city so that people could heat their apartments. The freezing cold had been destroying lives and morale was desperately low.
Fred met us at the airport and drove us in an armoured car through Serb roadblocks into the dark city. That evening, when I was in his office at the International Rescue Commitee, Damir Lulo, his principal Bosnian engineer, came to say that the water purification project they had already set up was in desperate need of diesel fuel to keep its jackhammers going. We went to the UN Commander's headquarters nearby to see if we could beg or borrow some. But General Briquemont was in Zagreb and no such permission could be given. We then raced up the hill to an abandoned tunnel in which, with immense ingenuity, Cuny had set up his purification plant for the entire city. This plant is perhaps his most impressive single accomplishment. Water was one of the most precious commodities in Sarajevo. Thousands of people had to draw it from the river with buckets every day, and were often shot by Serb snipers as they did so.
When we arrived at the plant, the jackhammers were still pounding; someone had scrounged some diesel fuel, and the lights were still on. I saw a fantastic structure of pumps and water tanks that looked like the engine room of an aircraft carrier. The pumps had all been manufactured in Texas - but the tanks had to be specially designed so that they could be shipped into Sarajevo on C-130 transport planes; it had taken 12 C-130 flights to get them there. Cuny showed me detailed drawings of how each huge section of the plant had been slid off the plane on to trucks. He had devised the system so that each plane could be unloaded in only seven minutes, thus reducing the risk of its being hit on the runway by Serb fire.
The water was pumped up from the river below the road. In the tunnel it passed first through a "skid" consisting of three chemical containers, which added a flocculant, a substance that gathered together in little balls the dirt and other particles suspended in the water. The liquid was then sprayed on to a clarifier, where the heavier material was separated off into a sludge line; this was pumped into the storm-sewer system and back into the river. The clarified water passed through three filters - anthracite, sand, and garnet - and was then chlorinated and pumped up the hill to an old reservoir that had been built in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and lain abandoned for years until Cuny had it restored. The water then ran by gravity through the city. The project, a remarkable combination of ancient and modern systems, cost only $2.5m.
By then, this plant and another he was building nearby were nearly finished, so that, as Cuny said, "60,000 people will have water 24 hours a day. Another 60,000 for a few hours a day." When a combination of politics and corruption delayed the system's being turned on, Cuny was outraged, but eventually it was turned on and it worked. As Damir Lulo told me, "Everyone who walks through the tunnel says, 'Thank God.' "
The group accompanying Soros also visited some of the streets where Cuny had arranged for pipelines to be laid to bring gas to nearby houses. In one house where refugee families were living, the broken glass had been replaced by sheets of insulation that Fred had had flown in. The rooms were heated by a simple device he had imported; turned on its side, it could also be used as a stove. Other families were growing vegetable seeds in window boxes - Fred and his colleagues in the International Rescue Committee had had these flown in to supplement the UN diet of beans and rice.
EARLY IN 1995 Cuny went to Chechnya on behalf of the Soros Foundation. He got to know the Chechen military leaders and thought he could arrange a cease-fire. He also came up with a detailed plan to evacuate 40,000 elderly Russians from the region using 100 Hungarian buses.
On his return he wrote a severely critical analysis of Russia's attack in Chechnya for the New York Review of Books. "It is ironic that the Chechen rebels are fighting the Russian Army to protect a section of a city full of Russian grandmothers," he wrote. It was unusual for him to state his views publicly - as a rule Cuny preferred to harangue officials rather than appear in print. But he felt, he told one of the editors, that Chechen civilians were suffering greatly from the Russian offensive and the situation was hardly known; he therefore thought he should describe what was happening.
At the end of March 1995, Cuny went back to Chechnya, still believing, with his characteristic self-confidence, that he could help arrange a cease-fire. He called Aryeh Neier from neighbouring Ingushetia to make three recommendations: that the Soros Foundation set up a medical centre to deal with a feared outbreak of cholera; that it put together repair kits to enable people to rebuild their shelled homes; and that it start an emergency radio station to help trace the missing and separated.
On 31 March he set off for Chechnya with two Russian Red Cross doctors and a young woman interpreter, Galina Oleynik. He was apparently trying to reach the Chechen leader, Dzokhar Dudayev, to try to put to him his plan for a cease-fire. By 7 April radio contact with the party was lost - though the Soros Foundation's office in Moscow received a handwritten note from Galina Oleynik saying that the group was delayed but all right. Elisabeth Socolow, in the Soros Moscow office, was alarmed. The day before he had left, discussing journalists who had disappeared in Chechnya, Cuny himself had said to her, "If anyone is missing for four days, he's dead."
The US government - unlike the embassy in Moscow - was slow to react. Lionel Rosenblatt went to Russia from the US to try to find Cuny. By the end of the month he had been joined by several members of Fred Cuny's family, including his brother, Chris, and his son, Craig. The family hoped that someone would demand a ransom so that Fred could be released to coincide with the meeting between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin in May. No one did. Clinton raised the question of Fred's disappearance with Boris Yeltsin and met with the family just before he left Moscow. Immediately afterwards, the family heard that a body, with the face burned out by sulphuric acid, had been found, but it turned out not to be Cuny's. Dudayev announced that he was setting up a search committee.
Cuny's son Craig and his brother Chris, together with other members of the family, continued their search throughout last summer. They managed to trace the party's movements until 7 April, and then were left with nothing but dozens of false sightings, and demands for money in exchange for dubious information. They were shot at and shelled by the Russians; they met with Chechen and Ingush officials who extorted money from them: and they were lied to by almost everyone. One night their house in Ingushetia was raided by masked robbers who tied them up and took their satellite telephone, a computer and a photocopier. Despite Bill Clinton's appeal to Boris Yeltsin, the Russians hindered rather than helped them.
"By the end of May I was pretty sure he was dead all along," said Craig. But nothing, the family was told, could be confirmed. Eventually they were given the name of a rich Chechen merchant who said that he could help to reconstruct what happened. He asked for nothing from them and they came to believe the grim account he pieced together.
AT A Moscow press conference, Chris Cuny summarised the family's conclusions and suspicions based, he said, on a variety of sources, including written testimony. Since the end of March, he said, Russian intelligence operatives had spread lies about his brother and his group, saying that Fred was anti-Islamic, and that the Russian translator and doctors he was travelling with were spies. This produced the results the Russians wanted. On 4 April Fred and the rest of his group had been arrested by Chechen fighters at Stari Atchoy, and they were held while their papers were sent to Chechen headquarters. Dudayev himself was said to have congratulated the fighters who arrested them. On 12 April, Fred and his companions were passed higher up the chain of command and into the custody of Abu Masayev, head of Chechen intelligence. On 14 April they were executed.
Then, Chris Cuny said, once the alarm had been raised among the international community and search parties arrived, the Chechens must have realised that they had killed someone of importance - and so they destroyed the remains. The wife of one of the Russian doctors travelling with Fred Cuny suffered a heart attack and died soon after hearing the news of the party's disappearance.
At his Moscow press conference, Chris Cuny said: "Let it be known to all nations and humanitarian organisations that Russia was responsible for the death of one of the world's great humanitarians." Most of the people I know who followed Fred's career, and knew about his last mission, did not think Chris Cuny's comments an exaggeration. Nor was Mort Abramowitz exaggerating when he said of Fred's work in Iraq and elsewhere that "Fred had more insight into what was needed for humanitarian assistance than dozens of groups." His family and Intertect's staff now intend to try to keep the company going. At the memorial meeting in Washington celebrating Fred's life it was clear that he had touched people in a remarkable way. He certainly touched me: I think he was a great man. !
Arts & Ents blogs
The 50 Best Christmas songs: Bells continue to ring for the Pogues' 'Fairytale of New York'
Sherlock series 3: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman provide teasers for the biggest comeback in British television
Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and Lady Gaga attacked by Noel Gallagher in 2013 music rant
Sir Elton John lashes out at Russia’s anti-gay laws in Moscow show
Doctor Who Christmas special 2013: New pictures released of Matt Smith's finale
- 1 Cameron's freebie to apartheid South Africa
- 2 Is this the scariest advert ever? Japanese tyre commercial comes with its own disclaimer and health warning
- 3 Sherlock series 3: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman provide teasers for the biggest comeback in British television
- 4 A forgotten episode in Russian history leaves links with the Philippines
- 5 People will try to reduce Mandela to a lilting reggae tune about ‘love’. They will fail
- < Previous
- Next >