A Hero of Our Time

Article excerpt

FRED CUNY set out from his hotel room in Ingushetia last April, leaving on the table by his bed a copy of John le Carre's latest 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 cause of the Ingush people's neighbours, the Chechens, 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 that 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. In the summer of 1995, 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, 56 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 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, Fred 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, South-east 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, and his mother, Charlotte, a teacher. When Cuny 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 college. But he was suspended in his second year at Texas A&M after a group of classmates placed burning car tyres in the wing of the dormitory where the seniors lived. It was the sort of escapade in which Cuny might well have been involved. No one in his own part of the dormitory was willing to inform on the others, so 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 {Reserve Officer Training Corps} to keep his military hopes alive.

In those days Fred Cuny was, according to his father, "to the right of Barry Goldwater". His self-confidence verged on arrogance. (Throughout his life his self-esteem was impressive, and to some, infuriating.) But one of his political science teachers, a liberal, encouraged his class to get involved in local issues. Cuny began to look into the conditions of migrant farm workers, some of them employed near Kingsville. As he got to know them, he changed his political views, took up their cause, and became active in local Democratic politics.

Cuny went to the University of Houston to study urban planning - a discipline which was later to prove invaluable. But one day he was hit by a taxi; his leg was crushed and he had to have a steel rod inserted in it. This ended his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot, and he abandoned all thought of military service. However, he continued to fly, and he particularly liked to fly gliders. Soaring, he told me, gave him great joy.

In the late Sixties, while working as a city planner, he was sent to various little towns along the Texas border that had serious sanitation problems. …