One of the world's foremost authorities on disaster relief and refugee management, Cuny was on an emergency mission helping refugees in Chechnya, the breakaway region under attack by Russian troops, when he and three Russian aid workers disappeared. The group has not been heard from in two weeks.
For 25 years and through scores of calamities in more than 30 countries, this Dallas native has changed the nature and philosophy of relief work around the world.
Along the way, he has attracted important supporters in the highest reaches of U.S. and foreign governments--as well as famous detractors, among them Mother Teresa.
As his friends and co-workers in Dallas and across the world nervously await word on 50-year-old Cuny--"the Red Adair of disaster relief," as one periodical called him--his disappearance has been overshadowed by the terroristic attack in Oklahoma City, which is not unlike the emergencies to which Cuny would be summoned on a moment's notice.
I met Fred Cuny in 1985, a week after an earthquake devastated Mexico City. While the city was still reeling from the enormity of destruction, UNICEF hired Cuny to assess the damage in some of the poorest colonias and plan housing reconstruction. I was profiling Cuny for an article in the Dallas Times Herald.
The trip to Mexico City was vintage Cuny. A large, bear-like man, Cuny protected himself from the emotional toll of such work by choosing to see disasters as a prime opportunity for economic development and social change. So in the destroyed Mexico City colonias, he did not seek to re-create slums that had previously existed, nor did he merely wish to make housing better than before.
After countless hours meeting with residents, who were all renters, he determined what they wanted--to own the land on which their modest homes had sat. Cuny and his consulting team, which included housing specialists, then conveyed that desire to high-level government officials, including Mexico's president at the time, Miguel de la Madrid.
A sixth-generation Texan, Cuny and his four brothers grew up in East Dallas. After a stint in the U.S. Marines and a few years at Texas A&M, Cuny joined the Merchant Marine, where he traveled to many Third-World countries--and became sensitive to their economic plight.
He transferred to Texas A&I in Kingsville, enrolling in an international studies program. He honed his social activism organizing labor workers in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1960s, and waged a boycott against a racially segregated national principal's organization.
After becoming a registered city planner while working for a Fort Worth engineering firm, Cuny fell into relief work in 1969. A former professor who'd been impressed with a paper Cuny had written predicting the Nigerian civil war and the resulting crisis known as Biafra invited him to visit that war-ravaged area.
Cuny was horrified to find that the relief agencies were ineffective in staving off disease and death largely because they were unprepared. They were armed with medicine and food, but they were incapable of taking care of the most basic sanitation and hygiene needs--the first bulwark against life-threatening illness-- such as properly installed latrines.
Cuny returned to Texas with a mission--to distill the lessons he learned from Biafra and compile them into pamphlets and field manuals. Then he sent them out to organizations most active in relief work. Some ignored him; others hired him to evaluate their relief efforts.
He found much to criticize. The majority of volunteer agencies, Cuny concluded, were simply flooding disaster sites with free goods and services, some of which they didn't need. In other cases, relief efforts would stunt the local economy and undermine the peoples' drive to rebuild.
Cuny's message that do-gooders were actually killing people with kindness angered a lot of folks. Others were drawn to his message, and in 1971, these mavericks met with Cuny in London to discuss how to supply the world with better-prepared, better-trained volunteers. They decided to form a company that would, on a consulting basis, provide technical expertise to government and volunteer agencies worldwide.
They called the company Intertect--for international architects. Their aim was literally to build a better world.
Cuny ended up alienating a fair share of people with his arrogance and desire to make his field more professional. He had the dubious distinction of angering the world's patron saint of the needy, Mother Teresa.
It was a story Cuny loved to tell. Intertect was working on housing issues in Calcutta when Cuny was forwarded a proposal for a concrete housing development, supported by Mother Teresa. Cuny refused to approve the project--which he found badly flawed--mostly because he felt the soft muddy ground would never support heavy concrete. The next day an angry Mother Teresa came to see Cuny. He told her the same thing.
Cuny has worked constantly over the last two decades in the world's most desperate--and dangerous--places, including Ethiopia; Beirut, where he was caught in an attack on a PLO camp in 1976; and Bosnia and Russia.
Though not particularly well-known in Dallas, where he never gets to spend much time, Cuny has developed a high profile internationally. Such prestigious publications as The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker have written flattering pieces about him.
"He has clearly obtained guru status in the emergency field," says Rick Hill, projects coordinator for Intertect. "He is the foremost authority on emergency management in the world."
Over the years, Cuny's work has increasingly taken him to areas destroyed by civil unrest. Chechnya was a case in point. It was Cuny's second visit to the decimated region this year. After recuperating from a broken leg and eight fractured ribs sustained in a bus accident in Turkey, Cuny was hired by the the Soros Foundation, which helps to stabilize emerging democracies, to do a needs assessment in the region. He was also to meet with Chechen leaders and explore the possibility of a ceasefire, Hill says.
Chechnya was considered an especially dangerous assignment, more so than even Sarajevo.
Traveling with an interpreter and two Russian Red Cross doctors, Cuny was last seen in Bamut, a Chechen-held town west of Grozny, which had "the hell shelled out of it by the Russians," Hill says.
Cuny is often incommunicado for several days when he's in the field, but this has been an uncharacteristically long silence. Hill and other Intertect office staff say Soros administrators are getting conflicting reports. But their best guess is that Cuny and his colleagues are being detained--by whom and for what reason is unclear.
"We're optimistic," says Mary Jo Cuny, Cuny's sister-in-law and an Intertect staffer. "No good can come from being any other way. It also shows you how much faith we have in Fred and his abilities.