Fred Cuny saved thousands of lives. Now has he lost his own?

Missing/ maverick US aid worker

FRED CUNY and I were flying into Sarajevo on a French air force Transall, the aid boxes tied onto the plane's cargo floor beside us, when I noticed a set of packages labelled "OFDA" beside a pile of food boxes upon which was stamped "European Union". "What's OFDA stand for?" I innocently asked Cuny as the Transall began its stomach-wrenching final missile-avoidance plunge towards Sarajevo. "Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance," he replied smartly. Then a wicked grin spread over his Texan face. "And what, Robert, does 'European Union' stand for?"

It was Fred Cuny's habit to let you know his contempt for weakness. The European Union had just presented its latest humiliating proposals for a Bosnian peace to the Serbs, and Cuny had no more time for political irresolution than he had for personal cowardice. Was. Had. It seems a breach of journalistic ethics to use these verbs in the past tense because Cuny - massive, courageous, over-confident - has not been found dead, even if his relatives and friends fear that the man who saved 10,000 lives may indeed have lost his own in the wreckage of the old Soviet Union.

Cuny set off into the wastes of Chechnya on 9 April, apparently seeking a settlement to another of the hopeless wars he had been forced to witness, and has not been seen since. President Clinton has asked President Yeltsin for help in finding him. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher has taken up Cuny's disappearance with Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev. Because Cuny was - is - a White House man.

I met him first in southern Iraq, just when the Iraqi Shia Muslims - encouraged by the Western armies to rise up against Saddam - were betrayed by those same armies which drew to a halt within earshot of the Iraqi firing squads. Cuny, working with the US government as a human rights and refugee adviser, turned up at Safwan to watch the Shias - wounded, starved, carrying their dying children with them - arriving in desperation at the Allied lines. There was a host of US bureaucrats trying to turn them away, arguing that this was nothing to do with America; until Cuny, along with a brave and stubborn junior US army officer who refused to obey orders, opened the lines to let the refugees through. "Americans should be helping these people - not turning them away," Cuny shouted.

Two months later I came across him again, in the mountains of northern Iraq, refusing to accept that the Kurds were doomed in the snows along the Turkish border, insisting that US troops must escort them back to the northern Iraqi plains where they must be given Allied protection.

He was now senior adviser to General Shalikashvili who, in less than two years, would be made head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cuny was a man with powerful friends. So influential, in fact, that in post-liberation Kuwait, he had engineered the discreet deportation of one of the Emir's sons who had been torturing Palestinian prisoners to death. When US Special Forces troops stood by as Kuwaiti troops beat up a Palestinian boy, Cuny ensured that they were flung out of the military.

He was in Somalia; fuming that the Americans had got it all wrong, that state-creation was no job for soldiers, that UN troops should not enter Mogadishu. But here he was over-ruled and frustrated. Not so in Sarajevo, where his own skills as an engineer, working now with the International Rescue Committee and for the Soros Foundation, enabled him to construct a water filtration plant that provided clean water to most of the city and closed down the fearful queues at the outside pumps that were picked off by snipers.

How many lives did Cuny save? He did not know and probably did not - does not - care. He wanted to help people and, coming from a nation whose own strategic interests had so often pushed humanitarian issues into second place, Cuny's desire to help the poor and the oppressed seemed to be a symbol of the America in which so many people would like to believe.

When I found him on the apron at Zagreb airport one frost-encrusted morning in 1993, desperate for a flight to Bosnia, he hustled me onto a Danish air force jet. "You still looking for rape victims who kept diaries?" he asked, remembering a month-old conversation. He thumbed through a battered diary as the plane cleared a fog bank over the Adriatic. "Go to Mostar, ask for these two doctors at the hospital in the east of the city. They'll look after you." And sure enough, they did, leading me to the victims of the Gacko rape camp.

Just how close Cuny was - is - to his government is unclear.Now his fate is being discussed by Clinton and Yeltsin. He set off in a car into Chechnya with a Russian interpreter and two Russian doctors - it was Cuny's second trip to the breakaway province - but has not been heard of since. Did he fall into the hands of Chechen rebels, Russian interior ministry troops or drunken Russian soldiery?

There are many who owe their lives to Cuny who must be hoping that they can still use the present tense. He is founder and chairman of his own Texas disaster relief training company and the author of numerous reports on humanitarian assistance as well as a member of earthquake engineering institutes. He helped train the Peace Corps and the UN Development Programme Emergency Unit and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. But maybe his curriculum vitae reads, just now, too much like an obituary.

CHECHEN rebel fighters claimed yesterday to have found a body they identified as Cuny, in the village of Shatoy in the north Caucasus mountains. But a search party attempting to check the Chechen reports was forced to turn back after coming under fire from Russian troops. Rick Hill, from Cuny's Texas disaster relief company, and a group of journalists were shelled as they attempted to travel from Novy Atagy to Shatoy, 28 miles south of Grozny. Hill declined to comment on the Chechen claims. "It's very sensitive," he said. (AP)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015