A Hero of Our Time

Fred Cuny set out from his hotel room in Ingushetia last April, leaving on the table by his bed a copy of John le Carré’s newest thriller, Our Game, whose main character, Larry Pettifer, has dedicated himself to defending the Ingush people against their Russian attackers; he then disappears. Cuny had become passionate about the Chechen cause, and hoped he could arrange a cease-fire between the Russian and Chechen forces. He never returned. After making a long and painful search, his family now believes he was murdered, although his body has not been found.

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. Earlier this summer, 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, fifty-six 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 to 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, 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, Southeast 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, his mother, Charlotte, a teacher. When he 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 Texas A & M. But he was suspended in his sophomore year after a group of classmates put burning car tires in the wing of the dormitory where the seniors lived. It was the sort of escapade in which Fred might well have been involved. No one in his own part of the dormitory was willing to inform on the others and 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 to keep his military hopes alive.

In those days he was, according to his father, Gene, “to the right of Barry Goldwater.” His self-confidence verged on arrogance. (Throughout his life his self-esteem was impressive, and to some,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.