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 Sarajevo1—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—which, given his experience in Biafra, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Cambodia, Somalia, Kurdistan, and Sarajevo (to name just a few), was really saying something. He talked of the appalling carnage, the over-the-top ferocity of the violence, its senseless randomness. He’d just completed a fiercely lucid analysis of the situation to be published in these pages2—a brilliant example of the cool, cogent, masterfully coherent briefing style for which he was celebrated—but that evening, with me, he was more hushed, almost shaken, almost awed, as he recalled the sorts of things he’d encountered on the trip from which he’d recently returned.
He described the three rings of the Russian encirclement of the besieged Chechen capital, Grozny. Into the city’s center the Russian high command had poured in thousands of their rawest recruits, terrified teenagers with no preparation whatever and utterly inadequate training. With no idea of what they were supposed to be doing there, they were ridiculously easy targets for the hardened urban guerrillas of the Chechen liberation forces; as a result, the Russians were panicky, firing in desperation at anything and everything that moved. A few dozen kilometers outside the city was the second ring, a layer of junior and midlevel Russian officers, disgusted by the stupidity of their mission but seemingly incapable of calling it off. And then, a few dozen kilometers beyond that, was a third layer, elite shock troops of the Russian high command, their rifles trained inward—not so much on the Chechen guerrillas as on any of their own colleagues who might be showing the temerity to try to sneak away.
And through this triple encirclement—or so Cuny went on to tell me that evening—was seeping a steady stream of hunched-up old “babushkas,” Russian mothers and grandmothers, each of them come to yank her own boy from out of this insanity and to drag him back home (the shock troops looking on dumbfounded—what were they supposed to do? They couldn’t very well fire, for God’s sake, on wrinkled old Russian grandmothers). Cuny told me how he was present at a meeting of midlevel Russian staff officers (in the second ring) when suddenly one such black-garbed old crone came barging in, made for her lieutenant son, grabbed him scoldingly by the ear, and simply dragged him away. Gee, I said, how embarrassing—what must all the other officers have thought of their colleague? “Oh,” said Cuny, “they were probably all wishing their mothers would come and take them away.”
Somehow, he’d been present there, and he’d likewise managed to accompany a group of Chechen guerrillas through the storm drains and sewers of the central town in order to make an estimate of the needs of the cowering, terrified civilian populace caught in between. His tales of barricades and strafings, of ambushes and roadblocks—one story more hair-raising than the next—were of the sort that would have led anyone else to conclude, “I’m sure as hell never going back there ever again.” But Cuny, being Cuny, concluded his own terrifying litany by saying offhandedly: “So, naturally, I’ve got to be heading back.” He was only fifty years old.
The haunting, agonizingly elusive question of what precisely became of Fred Cuny during the ensuing weeks comes to dominate and almost overwhelm Scott Anderson’s meticulous and absorbing new book, The Man Who Tried to Save the World. Subtitled “The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny,” Anderson’s account is mainly about Cuny’s disappearance; Cuny’s remarkable, inventive life is relegated to little more than one hundred efficient if inevitably cramped pages near the beginning.
It’s an understandable strategy. Anderson is a veteran war correspondent, the coauthor, with his brother Jon Lee Anderson, of the celebrated War Zones, and more recently, by himself, of Triage, last year’s affecting novel about a shell-shocked war photographer. Months after Cuny disappeared Anderson was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to investigate what had happened to him.
After establishing the extreme risk Cuny had taken in heading back into Chechnya on a venture that nobody in his right mind would ever even have entertained, Anderson himself hesitates for a moment, ponders (“Was there a time like this for Fred Cuny? Did there come a moment when he finally saw the full danger ahead but simply could not bring himself to act, a crucial instant when he lost the courage to say, ‘We can’t do this, we have to go back’?”), and then puts all trepidation aside and plunges ahead.
His reporting on what he found—his evocation of the especially hellish nature of combat in Chechnya, of the quicksand treachery of shifting alliances and the murky indeterminacy of virtually every player’s motives—is among the strongest material in the book. But the author’s gonzo pres-ence gets to be a little distracting—or rather it tends to blur the book’s main question: What in Cuny’s life propelled him toward his doom? Since the author seems intent on literally following in Cuny’s very footsteps, what, we keep asking ourselves, could possibly be driving him?
There are moments in Anderson’s relentlessly detailed account when it begins to seem like an obsessive dream with one false clue after another, and it becomes hard to follow.3 Beyond that, the strategy of concentrating primarily on what may have happened to Fred Cuny in Chechnya turns out to be flawed because we’re likely never to really know. As Anderson himself notes early on, “Of all the bad mistakes you can make about this place [Chechnya], this is the first one: to ever imagine there is a pattern, a logic, to any of it.” Anderson writes that “perhaps the deadliest” of all mis-takes anyone can make about Chechnya, the one Fred Cuny made, is the “awful mistake of imagining you might somehow save it.” Anderson becomes ensnared in his own Saving Private Ryan version of that fantasy—the forlorn hope that even if he couldn’t actually save Cuny himself he might nevertheless find convincing evidence about what actually happened to him. These are all understandable and even commendable aspirations; it’s just that, as Anderson himself suggests at the outset, in this particular instance, they had no chance of success.
And yet Anderson is onto something regarding Cuny’s motives. His ambitions as a disaster relief specialist, especially as a specialist in the relief of the man-made disasters of war, had been growing vaster and vaster across his last five years. To be sure, several of the schemes he seemed intent on advancing when he returned to Chechnya in late March of 1995 were of a kind he had successfully worked out before. He wanted to bring into Grozny tool kits that would allow the remaining residents of the city to repair their own damaged apartments; he wanted to set up an emergency radio station to help in the tracing of missing persons. But it was as if such conventional humanitarian interventions were no longer enough.
At our last dinner in New York, he told me how he’d come to know the military commander of the neighboring Ingushetia region—a good man, he felt, who in the pre-meltdown days of the Soviet empire had run one of the Red Army’s main officers’ training schools and, as such, had been mentor to some of the top midlevel officers on both sides of the conflict. (Through this general’s good offices, the mid-level officers were constantly brokering cease-fires which just as constantly were being upended by savage air attacks ordered from Moscow.) Cuny didn’t say so directly, but I think he was going back there to try to broker a comprehensive settlement of the entire conflict, or at least a cease-fire long enough to evacuate the entire remaining civilian population of Grozny. Anderson’s reporting tends to confirm this impression.
Unfortunately, Cuny was returning to a province even more riddled with suspicions and countersuspicions than the one he’d entered the first time just a few months earlier (suspicions heightened, in his own specific case, by his New York Review article, which had been especially scathing regarding Moscow’s part in the disaster, and which had appeared, to considerable critical notice, in the days immediately preceding his return).
Anderson analyzes the possible motivations of all the various players in the ensuing tragedy—Cuny’s translator, his Chechen driver, and the two Russian doctors who accompanied them on that last journey (of the five, only the driver survived); he describes the behavior of Cuny’s colleagues in his Ingushetian base camp and in Moscow, and for that matter, back in New York; the various Chechen warlords and their often feuding underlings; the Russian army and KGB commanders and theirs—and not only the specific ambitions of each of these but their various suspicions of one another’s motives (the question of whether or not someone actually was or could have been a spy didn’t matter nearly so much as whether he or she could have come to be perceived as such).
Anderson observes that Cuny, for his part, seemed to be systematically breaking every sober-minded rule he’d promulgated for himself over the entire rest of his career. He considers the evidence that the Russians killed Cuny and tried to make it look as if the Chechens had, and vice versa. In the end, though, Anderson finds that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the Chechens—or one of their renegade subfactions—did indeed liquidate Cuny and his team, following a brutal round of interrogations, though a considerable question remains about precisely how or why.
Anderson considers the theory upon which Cuny’s family finally settled—that Cuny’s second mission into Chechnya had been preceded by an extensive KGB disinformation campaign aimed at convincing the Chechen leadership that the hulking foreigner was in fact some sort of anti-Chechen agent. But he finds this theory wanting.4 Instead, he concludes that Cuny and his team were executed under the direct orders of the supreme Chechen commander, Dzhokhar Dudayev. Just why Dudayev would have executed a man who was, if anything, so manifestly trying to bring aid to the Chechen people is by no means evident. Anderson notes how Cuny and his team, for unknown reasons, had somehow stumbled into the strategically important village of Bamut, site of a former Soviet missile base. (Perhaps this was merely because the village happened to be the hometown of Cuny’s driver; or perhaps Cuny wanted to go there to check out some strange stories that had been circulating about the place.) At any rate, Dudayev had been thriving on the uncertainty sustained by highly dubious rumors to the effect that he had come into possession of ex-Soviet nuclear material of some sort. Anderson surmises that the Chechen leader couldn’t very well allow Cuny out either with the confirmation of that fact or with evidence to debunk his bluff. So instead he’d ordered him killed, on the afternoon of April 14, in the hamlet of Stari-Atchkoi, outside Bamut. (Dudayev himself was to die a year later when an air-launched Russian missile homed in on his cell phone.)
Anderson’s final theory seems plausible—though even he seems not entirely convinced of it, and it seems to me that much of the same evidence could also be marshaled to support the Cuny family’s version. In any case it’s Anderson who by this point has shown, at great length, how in Chechnya virtually nothing can ever be known for certain.
Still, Anderson’s may well stand as the definitive account of “Cuny Disappearing.” The book that remains to be written, alas, might be entitled “Cuny Appearing.”5 What with the kind of life Cuny was leading, the risks he was taking, the way in which those risks seemed to be compounding as he shifted his attention from natural disasters to the man-made “complex emergencies” of war, and the way in which those sorts of emergencies were in turn becoming ever more chaotic and dangerous without the previously limiting constraints of the cold war—it may have been that Cuny’s remarkable string of good luck was destined to give out at some point. Precisely how may come to seem less and less important with the passing years, especially in comparison with Cuny’s vision and the ways he tried to realize it for much of his life.
The question of what was driving him throughout that life remains something of a mystery. At the commemorative celebration in Washington, another longtime colleague of Cuny’s, an Englishman named Mark Brown, “now of the World Bank, which Fred thought an awful cop-out,” as he put it, recalled an evening many years ago, in a rice paddy on the Thai border with Cambodia, when he and Cuny had been trying to figure out what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees streaming into the camps there. “Sitting round the campfire,” Brown recalled, “I asked Fred how he’d ever got into this business. He let out a long sigh and then proceeded to tell me about how one night years earlier he’d been working as an engineer supervising a team of fifty Mexicans working all night just behind a huge tarmac-laying machine on what was eventually going to be the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. It was around three AM, it was pitch black, and he turned around and there were only forty-nine Mexicans. The ma-chine kept rolling along. ‘Miguel,’ he said he shouted above the noise, ‘Miguel?’ There was no answer. ‘But that was capitalism,’ he told me, ‘and we just kept on going—it was a regulation, you weren’t allowed to stop. I quit the next morning and decided to dedicate the rest of my life to humanitarian relief.”‘ There was a moment’s abashed silence following Brown’s anecdote, at which point everybody in that room in Washington broke into uproarious laughter. It was just like Fred.
The actual sources of Cuny’s vocation are a bit more difficult to discern, and made no easier for all his continual self-mythologizing. His Texas tall tales were an essential aspect of the man, but he often seemed to deploy the tales and all the bluster tactically: his reputation as a man who could do the impossible invariably preceded him and thus was of no mean help in powering his way through all the sorts of complex bureaucratic situations in which he often found himself gatecrashing as a virtually solo freelancer. I often felt that he also used such tales and all that bluster as a way of bolstering himself—of keeping up his own spirits in the face of often hopelessly daunting odds. He needed to believe those stories; and what’s more, he’d gotten others to accept his version, sometimes even participants who’d been eyewitnesses to the original events.
One of Anderson’s finer accomplishments is that he has been able to separate out many of Cuny’s fictions from his no less astonishing facts. For a start, Cuny wasn’t a native Texan; he was born in Connecticut and only moved to Texas with his parents as a child. Well into young manhood, he was an all-American conservative (at one point a Goldwater Republican) with an early passion for flying (and later, even more so, for gliding). From early on he had a near-desperate desire to qualify as a Marine jet pilot. In fact, his failure to achieve that goal, in Anderson’s telling, stands as perhaps the defining event of his early life.
According to Cuny, his troubles began when he managed to get himself kicked out of the Marine ROTC at Texas A&M, and out of the college altogether, on account of a stupid prank (something to do with a dorm fire—not, according to him, because he’d been one of the students who set the fire but rather because he’d refused to rat on those who did). Then there was the careering taxi that smashed into his side as he was crossing the street, shattering his leg in several places and rendering him unfit for military service. In fact, according to Anderson, what mainly derailed Cuny from the officer-training track at college was academic failure, and specifically (ironically in view of his later life) his repeated inability to complete the foreign language requirement. His failure to make it as a Marine pilot festered deep inside Cuny, an unspeakable shame, rendered all the more so, with the passing years, as his fellow cadets and best friends did indeed qualify, went off to Vietnam, and then themselves, one by one, began falling in battle. What was he doing, not sharing their fate? How was he ever going to be able to make it up?
Following his expulsion from Texas A&M, Cuny attended Texas A&I in Kingsville, where he fell under the spell of a charismatic political science professor who challenged him to go out and look at the world as it really was—specifically the plight of the bracero farmworkers, the illegal immigrants in the Kingville region. What the previously sheltered Cuny now saw appalled him. It changed his life and drew him into politics. He now became caught up in his studies, and he finished out his college years getting a degree in urban planning from the University of Houston. (It was during these years, too, that he married briefly and for the only time; he and his young bride had a son, whose custody he secured following the divorce, though in the end he made pretty much of a hash of fatherhood: the boy was largely raised by Cuny’s parents.)
For a few years thereafter he pursued a relatively conventional young urban planner’s career, working on the gargantuan Dallas-Fort Worth airport project. But he was hardly as conventional as all that: late in the summer of 1969, he decided to visit the West African nation of Dahomey, staging grounds for the Biafran airlift. Anderson found that, in all likelihood, Cuny’s famous sheet-of-flame story notwithstanding, Cuny never piloted any relief planes in West Africa, though he did spend several months assisting those who did. The following year, Cuny traveled to Bangladesh to help with relief projects following one of history’s deadliest cyclones; there he did do a lot of flying.
Through these and countless other adventures, Cuny gradually began to build up his own unconventional expertise, along with a fairly jaundiced view of conventional disaster relief. In 1971 he founded the Dallas-based Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corporation, with the UN as a major client. “I liked the name because it sounded slick and technical,” he once told The Wall Street Journal, “and it was different from something like ‘Save the Peasants.”‘ It was also a for-profit enterprise, though one that hardly ever made much money. Cuny had come to feel that most governments, NGOs, and international institutions only paid attention to advice they’d actually paid for.
“Disasters hurt people” is how he introduced his treatise Disasters and Development many years later, one of the most important recent books on the subject of relief.6 “They injure and kill. They cause emotional stress and trauma. They destroy homes and businesses, cause economic hardship, and spell financial ruin for many. And the people hit worst are the poor.”
The second paragraph, however, begins: “For the survivors of a natural disaster, a second disaster may also be looming.” The disaster, that is, of disaster relief, as it was conventionally being practiced—a calamity whose unthinking effects Cuny repeatedly encountered and denounced. He deplored the impulse, for example, to rush food assistance into some fresh disaster site, oblivious of the bankrupting effects such relief might have on outlying farmers. There was, he observed, a romantic tendency to send in doctors and medicines rather than, say, mundane engineers with piping material who might begin to set up sewage networks that could help stave off impending cholera outbreaks. He was appalled by the planefuls of inappropriate foodstuffs—smoked oysters or sackfuls of unlabeled (and unexplained) instant mashed potatoes, which in some cases local women inadvertently started using as laundry detergent. The spasmodic oversaturation of aid after a disaster often had the effect of infantilizing the victims while their real needs were ignored. Then, just as suddenly, there would often come a loss of interest in further support, by which time the local economy had become more ravaged and dependent than if nothing had been done at all.
It wasn’t just the inanities of traditional disaster relief that so annoyed and appalled Cuny. It was the entire cast of mind. In essence—and this was his revolutionary insight—he saw disasters as opportunities, as occasions for societies to reinvent themselves and in particular for the most disenfranchised members of those societies to discover a fresh sense of agency and possibility within themselves. He wanted to work out methods of assistance that fostered such potentialities rather than overwhelm them in a typical binge-and-famish cycle. He became an expert in inventing new kinds of relief work.
It wasn’t always easy. In Guatemala in 1976, following a calamitous earthquake, Cuny arrived on the scene immediately in advance of several planeloads of donated blankets—this for a country half of whose export income derived from the manufacture of blankets. He quickly realized that what was needed in Guatemala was immediate road repair so that parts of the country that hadn’t been devastated could start assisting parts that were (thereby improving the overall economy of the entire region); but repair work needed to be done in a way that would employ and train as many local (and suddenly now unemployed) laborers as possible. Earthquakes were frequent in Guatemala, and the country was going to need such indigenous expertise on a long-term basis. The Guatemalans also need cheap, easily reproducible models for new housing of the sort that might more effectively resist future earthquakes. Cuny and his local advisers developed such models—some capable of being dismantled and carried in backpacks to remote peasant villages.
Initially the program seemed to prove a huge success. If anything, however, it was too successful: it bred an entire new generation of indigenous leaders, apostles of self-sufficiency and empowerment, leaders who then began threatening the local power establishment, which in turn began training its death squads on them. The ensuing massacres provided Cuny himself with a horrifying and sobering lesson. As a result, his future interventions were more politically nuanced, more aware of possible opposition from powerful opponents.
Cuny’s genius was for grasping the distinct, complex local conditions involved in any new situation. He hated, for example, the anonymous grid pattern of most refugee tent camps; he favored instead more intimate clusters of tents in circular villagelike configurations. He had prodigious practical knowledge of construction techniques, hydraulics, and medicine, as well as of the particular capacities of every sort of transport vehicle. He knew how to stack a warehouse full of foodstuffs in such a way as to keep out any weevils. He exuded competence. And then there was his sheer, almost loopy ingenuity. He once headed off a rapidly developing famine in one region of Ethiopia by manipulating the currency exchange rates in a market town several hundred kilometers away.
In the early Nineties, with Cuny increasingly concentrating on the man-made emergencies of war, he had arguably his greatest triumph and his greatest failure, the one following hard on the other. Late in the winter of 1991, after the Persian Gulf War and the ensuing Kurdish uprising (incited and then just as casually forsaken by the West), hundreds of thousands of terrified Kurds abandoned their villages, fleeing headlong before Saddam Hussein’s advancing forces, into the steep, craggy mountains to the north—and into what could have been one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the century. Belatedly, American Special Forces were dispatched into the mountains to try to stabilize the situation, but as Cuny quickly grasped when he himself arrived (under contract to the State Department), hardly anything could be done in the mountains if for no other reason than that there was no water up there.
Hundreds of Kurds were already dying of exposure, thousands were threatened with disease. Cuny quickly hatched an audacious plan to return close to half a million people to their home villages in complete safety within just two months. All he’d have to do would be to unofficially commandeer units of the American military for a series of entirely unauthorized lightning land grabs. He would have to stare down Saddam’s troops each step of the way through sheer bluster and the entirely conjectural threat of more force to come.
The plan seemed to work: the Iraqi forces kept pulling back before Cuny’s bravado tactics, while Washington evinced ever greater consternation. “Where are you now?” Cuny’s ostensible State Department patron thundered over the satellite phone at one point. “In Dahuk,” Cuny replied nonchalantly. “But the National Security Council has decided that we’re not sending troops that far into Iraq,” the man from State angrily pointed out. “Well, over here,” Cuny replied, “we’ve made the strategic decision to advance. Washington will catch up with us eventually.” And catch up they eventually did when half a million Kurds indeed returned to their villages within those two short months.
Flush from this triumph, Cuny moved on to a Somalia wracked with famine, where he observed how virtually every scrap of relief supplies ended up being stolen by heavily armed marauding gangs before any of it could make it to the warehouses for distribution. Returning to Washington, Cuny once again argued for a tightly conceived and precisely calibrated military intervention. After his already legendary success in Kurdistan, he received a thorough hearing from the Bush administration. Indeed, his may have been the strongest voice leading to the eventual American intervention, though it was certainly not the kind of intervention he had advocated. He had warned both the US and the UN not to attempt to establish bases in the cities under any circumstances. They should, he said, be left to the competing warlords. Instead relief bases should be established in the countryside; zones of peace and order might radiate outward once Somalis started to hook up with the bases through everyday visits and exchanges of goods.
Cuny’s advice and warnings went unheeded. Storming Mogadishu was much more telegenic than camping in some godforsaken, uninhabited desertscape. The calamitous results were exactly the ones he had foreseen; and they led to a new skittishness about engaging in such humanitarian intervention ever again.
Unable to forestall the debacle in Somalia, Cuny flew to Bosnia (this time at the invitation of George Soros, who’d given the city of Sarajevo a grant of $50 million to help see it through the siege). Somehow the situation of Sarajevo affected Cuny more deeply than almost any of his other exploits—or so he frequently said. A woman was involved in his life there—but then there were often women. He came to identify with the plight of the cosmopolitan Muslims (for over two years he shared their wretched living conditions), and he was enraged by the rest of the world’s cowardly response to the horrors being visited upon them. “If the UN had been around in 1939,” he’d sometimes say, “we’d all be speaking German.”
“In any large-scale disaster,” Cuny once told me, “if you can isolate a part that you can understand you will usually end up understanding the whole system.” That is, if you could start out by effectively addressing a small part of the disaster you might eventually succeed in helping to salvage the entire situation. In Sarajevo, Cuny quickly grasped that the besieging Serb snipers were systematically picking off the town’s civilians whenever they had to leave their homes in order to collect food, wood for burning, or water. In response, he systematically smuggled in seeds so the townspeople could plant kitchen gardens. He imported fifteen miles of plastic tubing so they could tap into the main natural gas feeder line that passed through the city (and then went on to Belgrade, and hence was not likely to be shut off). He thereby supplied heat and stove-fire to tens of thousands of people. Finally, and most audaciously, he brought an entire custom-designed two-hundred-yard-long water filtration plant, constructed offsite in Texas and then snuck in, in modular segments, on successive C-130 air transport runs and secreted in an abandoned highway tunnel; this was the centerpiece of a brilliant scheme to resupply water to the homes in a large part of the city.
Dogged opposition to the last of these projects, however, soon arose from the most unlikely of sources: corrupt elements within the Bosnian Muslim government itself, greedy warlords who were making a small fortune from the way water was then being supplied. Other officials were wary of sacrificing the evident propaganda benefits of having their fellow citizens murdered every day in full view of international cameras as they pathetically ran to the public wells. For months on end, Cuny was prevented from turning on the spigot. He was finally permitted to do so, and his system would indeed be credited with saving the city, a year later, when the Serbs engaged in their final and most ferocious effort at civic strangulation. But as Anderson notes, “The callous inaction of the Bosnian government—the ‘victims’—challenged one of Fred’s most deeply held assumptions about humanity, one that guided and compelled him throughout his life: that people were essentially good.”
Indeed, by the middle of the decade, Cuny seemed to be losing his balance. Anderson cites Cuny’s Sarajevan girlfriend’s canny view of him as “an extremely complex man, driven by both compassion and his own unslaked thirst for recognition,” and driven also by a bravery that was, as she put it, “a kind of illness.” He was feeling increasingly rattled by his seeming ineffectuality, his inability to convince Washington of the need for a more principled response to humanitarian disasters. Anderson sees Cuny in those final months as a man of blocked ambition, ready to gamble on a new, ill-defined mission into Chechnya, the scariest place of all.
His loss was itself an incalculable disaster. He had quite literally saved tens and probably hundreds of thousands of lives. Since his own death, over four years ago now, there are likely many thousands more who have perished for lack of his interventions. It is not uncommon to hear that he could have made a difference in the refugee camps on the borders of Kosovo or East Timor or in Angola. He would now be only fifty-five.
Cuny was an indispensable, irreplaceable man, and not simply for the brilliance of his interventions. Today the entire humanitarian movement is itself in crisis, a crisis whose core issues (as with most things) Cuny seemed to be sensing long before most others. They include the bedev-iling ambiguities of “nonpartisan” engagement when one side is clearly victimizing the other; the often contradictory goals of military and humanitarian commitment; and the susceptibility of compassionate concerns to propaganda manipulation. Perhaps the greatest loss of all, as we try to muddle through those compounding crises, is that we will have to do so without the lucidity of Cuny’s incomparably fresh insights into how people in distress can be helped—and how many efforts to help them do no good at all.
December 2, 1999
Which is how I’d first gotten to know him, chronicling his Sarajevo exploits for The New Yorker‘s “Talk of the Town” (November 22, 1993). ↩
It would run a few weeks later in the April 6, 1995, issue. ↩
Matters are hardly rendered any easier by the book’s amazingly sloppy and lackadaisical editing, particularly its repetitions. Thus, to take just one example, Fred Cuny’s final words with his assistant in Moscow, spoken “softly” over the telephone before he crosses once more into Chechnya—”Just think about me”—appear the first time on page 23 and then all over again on page 214: “There was a long pause on the line before he answered in a very soft voice: ‘Just think about me”‘—and then again “in a hushed, frightened voice” on page 348. ↩
In part, Anderson argues, the KGB simply weren’t competent enough to have pulled off such a sophisticated and subtle campaign, the entire Russian effort in Chechnya being characterized, principally, by appalling stupidity. ↩
Another principal source for that eventual biography will be Sherry Jones’s moving and informative 1997 PBS Frontline documentary The Lost American. It seems to me that Jones got the proportions of her subject better—over three quarters about his life and less than one quarter about his disappearance. Jones and her team likewise came to feel that it was the Chechens who executed Cuny and his colleagues, though they are less sure precisely why. They plausibly suggest the possibility of a simple financial motive: Cuny was carrying a good deal of cash with him. In the account that follows, Iam drawing both on Anderson and on Jones, as well as on personal conversations with Cuny over the years. ↩
The book (Oxford University Press, 1983) has disgracefully been allowed to go out of print. For a more recent volume in the Cuny manner, see Kimberley Maynard’s Healing Communities in Conflict: International Assistance in Complex Emergencies (Columbia University Press, 1999). ↩