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)

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