Life and Death of a Hero

I had dinner with Fred Cuny his last night in New York City—this was mid-week, mid-March 1995, and, as it subsequently turned out, I wasn’t the only one who did so. At a memorial meeting in Washington some months later, where mourners seemed to vie with one another in their attempts to coin a telling characterization of Cuny—“the Red Adair of Humanitarian Relief,” “a postimperial, postcolonial Lawrence of Arabia,” “the Master of Disaster”—I ran into at least three or four others there who’d had similar meals with him that evening. Indeed, lining up our memories, we were able to puzzle out how he’d loped from one such repast to the next before taking off yet again into the farthest hinterland—or rather his latest, and last, farthest hinterland, for a few weeks later he was killed in Chechnya.

He was a big man, with big appetites. “A mountain of a man,” as Aryeh Neier, the head of George Soros’s Open Society Institute—at whose request Cuny had run a legendary relief effort in Sarajevo—described him at that memorial commemoration. “He bulked large,” Neier continued, “but not because he was loud (he was quiet), nor because he was boisterous (he was gentle)—rather because of the intelligence and commitment he radiated.”

Intelligence and commitment, yes, and these went along with the wonderfully expansive and savvy humor that characterized him whenever I saw him, not least at that last dinner. I’d asked him something along the lines of what on earth kept him going and he conjured up a story from one of his earliest missions, in Biafra in the early Seventies, where he’d gone to help out as a pilot in the air relief campaign. One day, he recalled, taxiing his ramshackle, fully laden aircraft out onto the mud-rutted runway, he’d radioed the control tower for clearance. “Hold on, Red Cross Three,” came the reply, “till after this next plane lands.” Watching that plane in the distance coming in for its landing, he’d noticed how one of its engines seemed to be expelling smoke. “Then I saw another one catch fire,” he recalled, “and then a third, and finally all four. The plane lurched toward the runway, banked and then came slamming onto the tarmac, breaking up and erupting in flames, a sheet of boiling fire racing right past my idling plane and down the rest of the runway. At which point, over our earphones came the squawking voice of the control tower: ‘All right, Red Cross Three: cleared for take-off.’ Nothing stopped, you just kept going—and that’s pretty much what you do: you just keep going.”

He was just back from his first visit to Chechnya, where he’d been surveying conditions for the Open Society Institute, and as his conversation veered toward those more recent memories, his entire demeanor seemed to change. “Chechnya is the scariest place I have ever been,” he declared flatly …

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