Frederick Cuny, Reliever

b 1944 Texas, d 1995 Chechnya

portrait of Cuny

Cuny was a man who knew how to fix the world, and did a lot of the fixing himself. He's the most heroic of the people on this list, and appropriately enough, he died in action.

My source of information about him and this picture are from: "A Hero of Our Time" by William Shawcross, New York Review of Books, 30-Nov-1995, pg 35.

Cuny founded and ran a private relief agency called Intertect. It managed the logistics for relief operations all over the world. It trained people and was consulted on the running of airlifts, of food distribution, of disaster reconstruction, and of physical management such as camp and waterworks construction.

He was a huge Texan, with all the Texan bluffness and self-confidence. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but an accident in college crushed his leg and ended his military chances, though not his love of flying. He studied city planning at the University of Houston, and first got into relief work while working little immigrant towns along the Mexican border. He saw there that simple things, like paving the roads to eliminate pools of mosquito-breeding stagnant water, could really affect public health. He got involved in the Biafran war in 1970, where Nigeria conquered the breakaway province of Biafra. There too the problems had straightforward engineering solutions. Build tent camps in high ground to improve drainage. Dig latrines. Distribute food in the countryside instead of the city to keep down refugee build-up.

Since relief agencies tend to specialize in medicine, food assistance, and fund-raising, there was a real need for someone with engineering experience. Cuny founded Intertect to fill that need. Over the next twenty-five years he was in all of the world's hot spots. He advised Mother Teresa on what kind of housing would suit Calcutta's muddy soil, showed Guatamalan Indians how to use cross-braces to make their roofs more earthquake-resistant, improved the adobe used to rebuild houses in Peru after an earthquake by adding a little motor oil to it, and managed the return of 400,000 Kurd refugees to northern Iraq after the Gulf War.

But he was proudest of his work in Bosnia. He devised a water filtration system whose pieces could be unloaded from a C-130 in just seven minutes, short enough to evade Serb sniper fire. He rebuilt the water system of Sarajevo in a protected cave above the city, and supplied clean water to 120,000 people. He also re-laid gas pipes to much of the city, supplying heat through their bitterly cold winters.

His last mission was to Chechnya. The Chechens have been trying to win independence from Russia ever since the Soviet breakup, and in 1994 the struggle broke into open war. The Russians, unable to stand another humiliation in the loss of their empire, crushed the rebellion with great brutality. Cuny was openly critical of the Russians, particularly since Russian civilians were being killed by their own army. He had arranged evacuation plans for 40,000 of them, and made plans for setting up medical stations and radio stations to trace the missing.

In April 1995 he went to Chechnya with two Russian doctors and an interpreter, and then disappeared. His family searched for him for months, and have reconstructed what happened. Apparently Russian intelligence put out stories that he was anti-Islamist, and that the doctors with him were spies. They were arrested at a Chechen sentry post and sent to a prison in the capital, where they were executed. Once the Chechens found out they had killed someone important, they destroyed the bodies and denied everything.

Something like this was bound to happen eventually. Most refugee crises are not accidents - they are created by one group that wants to annihilate another. Russians vs Chechens, Serbs vs Bosnians, Hutus vs Tutsis, every Somali against every other Somali; it's all deliberate. Anyone who helps a targeted group is therefore also an enemy. Cuny's American-ness must have been some protection, but not against a people as violent and stupid as the Chechens. The Russians must have congratulated themselves on getting rid of such an annoying character without getting their hands bloody, but they managed to destroy someone who was helping their own people. Not just theirs either, but hundreds of thousands world-wide. Cuny was a real loss, and a real hero.

(c) John Redford, Feb-96

Links to more information:

The PBS news program Frontline aired an entire show about Cuny, "The Lost American" on Oct 14, 1997. There is an extensive web site associated with the show at The Lost American

Here are some notes on his work in Sarajevo by a fellow glider pilot, Bill Vickland: Fred Cuny: The Lost American. There is now a glider trophy named after him.

Mark Zaremba of the WWW Ethics Center at Case Wester University has put together a detailed list of his accomplishments at WWW Ethics Center: Moral Leaders: Fred Cuny

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