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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Humanitarian Feats in Chechnya




Fred Cuny made a life out of navigating wars and natural disasters. His humanitarian aid work saved thousands of lives and along the way earned him bitter enemies in the traditional aid bureaucracies.


In 1995, Cuny came to Chechnya. He had seen about 30 conflicts over the previous 25 years - from Iraq to Somalia to Yugoslavia - but he had never seen a war so horrifying. To friends back in the United States, Cuny described Chechnya as "the scariest place I have ever been."


Cuny returned to Chechnya later that year, only to disappear at the height of the war in rebel-controlled territory. Aid workers, journalists and private investigators joined Cuny's son and brothers and top government officials from Russia and the United States in the search. Others - some 70 journalists and aid workers by early 1998 - have also disappeared in Chechnya. But only Cuny provoked such a passionate response - a fact that had some Russian media (and many Westerners in private) speculating that Cuny was actually a U.S. intelligence operative.


Scott Anderson recounts Cuny's life and disappearance in The Man Who Tried to Save the World. The book draws on interviews with people who knew and worked with Cuny, from his old girlfriends to Bosnian water engineers to his best friends in high school to the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Anderson, an accomplished war correspondent, also traveled to Chechnya himself and tried to retrace Cuny's steps. His brief asides about these dangerous trips are great reads.


Cuny was a fascinating and contradictory character. Anderson skillfully plots out his accomplishments, even as he explores his subject's follies and weaknesses with scrupulous fairness. Cuny was a constant critic of the authorities in what Anderson calls "the disaster industrial complex" - a fraternity of private charities and government bureaucracies whom Cuny repeatedly skewered as incompetent chowderheads.


But Cuny was also hyper-ambitious. His intent was never just to critique this fraternity, but to bend it to his will. What is remarkable is that Cuny to a degree succeeded. He may have been hated in the corridors of the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development, but he was so competent he simply could not be marginalized or ignored.


When an earthquake demolished Nicaragua in 1972, Cuny - already a veteran of such disasters - brilliantly reinvented the refugee camp. Previously camps had been built in a square grid pattern of large high-occupancy huts. Cuny's refugee camp outside Managua used single-family tents clustered around a communal area. With these and other modifications, Cuny's camps became models: Residents kept order themselves, and disease was absent. Two neighboring camps built by the U.S. Army were rife with violence and epidemics and significantly more expensive to run.


Cuny's exploits elsewhere were even more radically groundbreaking. In Somalia, his advice was ignored by the U.S. government, and events deteriorated exactly as he had predicted. But in Iraqi Kurdistan, Cuny took over Operation Provide Comfort, a U.S. military relief operation that saved hundreds of thousands of lives. He was so impressive in Iraq that U.S. military officers disobeyed the Pentagon to do his bidding, to the point of taking over towns Cuny needed but Washington did not. In Sarajevo, Cuny's mammoth projects included tricking, bribing or cajoling Serbs to look the other way as his engineering team diverted water from the nearby Miljacka River to the thirsty city.


In Chechnya, Cuny shuttled across the battle lines, meeting with senior rebels like General Aslan Maskhadov and with Russian officials. He was trying to negotiate a cease-fire in the Russian carpet bombing of Grozny - just for a few days, so aid workers could evacuate an estimated 30,000 civilians trapped in the city.


In early March, Cuny tried to get White House backing for the cease-fire plan. Top officials in President Bill Clinton's administration who met Cuny were shocked and stunned at his first-hand account of the horrors of Chechnya - which leads Anderson to ask whether the people in charge of U.S. foreign policy are "thoroughly disingenuous or complete idiots."


Both, Anderson decides. Washington did not see the war's brutality because it did not want to see it. This was 1995, after all, when in Washington's eyes Russian President Boris Yeltsin was still the champion of reform. Anderson quotes an unnamed State Department official insisting Yeltsin never slurs his words: "That's just his regional accent." And he reiterates then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher's comments on Chechnya, which today seem damning indeed. "It's best in such matters to leave it to the judgment of President Yeltsin," Christopher said. "I'm sure he thought through what he was doing before he did it, and it's best we let him run such things."


The flaw in this book is that it tries too hard to breathe extra intrigue and suspense into what is already a great tale. This leads Anderson into cheap theatrics. Most irritatingly, he draws out Cuny's disappearance for the entire 358 pages, hinting first that he might have been killed here by rogue Russian soldiers, then that he might have been killed somewhere else by Chechen rebels, then suggesting Cuny might have been targeted for elimination by the Moscow security service, and around the same circle again and again.


It gets stale, particularly since Anderson's research leads him to a pretty convincing conclusion: Cuny and three Russian aid workers with him - translator Galina Oleinik and doctors Sergei Makarov and Andrei Sereda - were executed as "spies" (which they most likely were not) by Chechens, on orders from President Dzhokhar Dudayev himself.


Anderson holds back a crucial piece of evidence until the next to last page of the book: A letter from Oleinik to Maskhadov begging him to come tell Dudayev that Cuny was not a spy. The letter was found in 1996 with the passports of the four aid workers, wrapped in a bloodstained skirt and tucked inside a pipe in a bomb-destroyed house in Stary-Atagi.


The FBI Overseas Terrorism Section - using information provided by the Cunys (who have repeatedly braved Chechnya) and by Anderson - now believes they have a general idea where Cuny's body might be buried. Anderson reports that actually locating and recovering Cuny's remains is likely to be a long and difficult haul.


"The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life & Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny," by Scott Anderson. Doubleday. 374 pages. $24.95.