the lost american INTERVIEW WITH KEITH & SABINA McCAMBRIDGE  -  EXCERPTS

Keith McCambridge was a captain in the British Army's Royal Engineers and was stationed in Sarajevo from 1992 until 1994. During that time, working for the head of the NATO forces, he came into contact with and quickly became friends with Fred Cuny. At a party at the Intertect House in Sarajevo, he met and fell in love with Sabina Duman, a 22-year-old citizen of Sarajevo.

In this excerpt Keith and Sabina describe Fred Cuny and what it was like to be around him in Sarajevo. They also detail how Fred helped Sabina escape the Serbian-controlled city. In 1994, Keith and Sabina were married in London, where they currently live.

FRONTLINE Producer Sherry Jones: Tell me about your impressions of Fred Cuny.

KM: Huge guy.

SM: Didn't lack in his Texan clothes and cowboys boots and jeans. He looked stunning.

KM: Yeah.

SM: He was a good looking guy.

KM: Very imposing man.

SM: Very imposing. He had a presence. Nobody was allowed to smoke while he was around which is quite unusual in the middle of the war and in Sarajevo everybody smoked at the time.

KM: Yeah, he was quite a father figure because a lot of the people who worked in the aid community in Sarajevo were youngsters mostly. Fred was very youthful in his approach anyway, and he actually lived quite a lot of his life through other people and through the youth and enthusiasm that they had for Bosnia or what they were doing. He looked after people and people had a great sort of natural respect for him. When he did walk into the room if somebody was smoking, then they either left the room or they put it out very quickly. Not because he would have made a big issue of it, but purely out of respect I think.

FRONTLINE : You said that he was this big figure. Other people have told me that, that he filled the room. Explain that to me.

KM: It was a reputation, because his reputation did precede him.

SM: He had a presence. The feeling I got from the locals in Sarajevo at the time was that they felt the town was full of strangers who were building up their careers. They wanted a bit of adventure. So we couldn't have respect for them from that point of view. But Fred just arrived on his own and he was a human figure. He was just there. He was liked a lot.

KM: That was why I think he really enjoyed integrating with the people, as opposed to specific organizations. He didn't want to be tarnished by the stereotype of the UN at that particular time. I think that was one of his real enduring qualities because he wasn't part of an organization. He was reliant purely on who he was and his reputation was very strong. And he would walk into a room and have a great empathy. And that's probably one of the best words to describe him, a real empathy with the way in which he actually dealt with everybody : Bosnians, UN operators, the army, the Serbs.

SM: He organizes an evening of Mexican food in the middle of the war and gets the entire dinner party going just by his presence. And it is him.

KM: He never stopped working because even in a social environment, he constantly has at the back of his mind, "What am I trying to do here?". He would talk to somebody who is a complete stranger and milk them dry for what they knew without them knowing it in a way.

FRONTLINE: Did you have that experience?

KM: Oh yeah, definitely, before I really understood what he was like. There were frequent times halfway through a conversation that felt quite tame and quite unthreatening that suddenly he'd ask a question and because you're so comfortable with him, you answer it. And you don't realize until a couple of days later that ...

FRONTLINE: . . . That you've told him some state secret?.

KM: Well certainly not that but....(Laughter)

FRONTLINE: Sabina, tell me more about the parties or the life at the Intertect House.

SM: It was a mad place. In one house he had an Australian and four American chaps. And he had Brian Steers, who's from good old England. Funnily enough, they all got on well with each other.. We drank Saryetsko Pivo which is a beer, locally made, tasted awful but it was really good at the time. I was very good at making pizzas on an open fire. We didn't have ovens because we didn't have electricity. So we would get this corned beef from A.I.D. and some horrible chunk cheese and put it on the top but it tasted great. Around 8:00 in the evening, when they all finished usually, if they weren't somewhere in the field, if they didn't get stuck somewhere along the way at a Serbian checkpoint....it would start and then we'd just ignore the curfew which was at 10:00.

KM: It's a lovely house, it's really quite a big house and it was all candlelit because there was no electricity. You have a television in the corner that hasn't been switched on for a year. Everybody used to turn up who was associated with this group of do-ers if you like.

FRONTLINE: It was just like a magnet house, wasn't it?

KM: It was used to actually network a tremendous amount, which is why I suppose Fred unwittingly established this. Some nights he would have 10, 15, 20 people there and of course everybody would just let their hair down. They would forget about everything that had gone on during the day. Or indeed everything that was going on around them. And there were occasions when the house was shelled quite closely. Some guy in the corner would be playing a guitar and everybody was singing and we'd ignore the shelling for a bit because it wasn't that far away. It was only about a hundred meters or something. Then it used to gradually get closer and all we used to do is just pick up our beer and the guitar and go down into the cellar and carry on. And it was really quite a strange place because there was no sense of fear as such. It was quite a brotherhood wasn't it?

SM: Yeah, I wouldn't say that we were completely mad but I think the people were able to relax even more, including myself even though I was a local. Even Keith, who was very, very English at the time, even he managed to relax and go back to basics of living.

KM: There was nowhere else to go anyway, there was no one else. You were in a besieged city and if you're there for six months, a year or, or however long, you've got to be able to have some time away with some friends and just relax. And because you have no choice, you have a good time and the shelling was something that happened all the time anyway.

Fred used to sit in the corner or would be satelliting around, talking to different people. It was a remarkable place. You had complete strangers turn up. One evening, there was a Legionnaire from Fiji and he came in uniform. He turned up quite late in the evening and spotted somebody with a guitar and said, "Do you mind if I play the guitar?" And so he was playing this Fijian music all evening. He broke a string half way through and unzipped his pocket, pulled out a spare string for this guitar (which he obviously carries with him all the time because he's used to breaking strings in guitars), strung it up again and carried on playing. It was a weird, weird place. Very strange, such a microcosm.

FRONTLINE: When you met before with Chris (Buchanan, Associate Producer), you said that Fred was about 98 percent of who he said he was and two percent he manufactured. Explain what you meant.

KM: Fred enjoyed the fact that he was influential, that he was involved, that he was a real genuine player on the international scene. And I think occasionally to reinforce that, maybe to sell people into his ideas and maybe to get them on board, the border between truth and what actually happened might be a little bit blurred. So about 98% was real and 2% was implied.

It was all part of his ability to get into situations and get involved in situations. He had a bit of a mythical status amongst the aid community, and it was a status he encouraged by rumor.

..... But I don't think one could argue that actually it's a terrible thing to do, to pretend that you're something that you are not. He did it in a way to actually provide him with more influence so that he could do good. The morals of it are for somebody else to argue, but it achieved the aim.

SM: I remember Fred at the Sarajevo airport when I was smuggled out. He was one of my bodyguards and the plan was that he would tell to the French soldiers who were based at the airport that I was going on a business trip to Split with him to translate some important documents. And when they asked him, "Why couldn't you find somebody else, rather than a local?", he said, "Because I need somebody that I can trust. And these documents are very, very important and you know who I am!". So he got me on the plane.

KM: That's actually a very good example of that 2 percent. It was feeding this myth. They probably had heard of who he was, but they didn't really know how he was involved.

FRONTLINE: Sabina, you mentioned when he helped smuggle you out. Tell me about what happened during the flight.

KM: You should start with the journey to the airport.

SM: I had four gorgeous guys with me in the Land Rover, including Fred. There was a Serbian checkpoint on the way to the airport. Because I still have a Bosnian passport, if the Serbs stopped us at that time, they would get me out of the car and nobody would ever see me again. The Serbs didn't lift a stop sign but Vinnie and Fred just ordered the driver to push the accelerator down so we drove through and they started shooting after us. We got to the airport and the French soldiers who checked my luggage said, "Why do you need so much underwear for two days in Split?". Fred had another thing to say about that which shut them up. While we were waiting for the plane, Fred was just trying to feed me with these tangerines because he thought I was really nervous and for some reason he thought they would calm me down. But it didn't.

About 15 minutes after we took off, the plane got shot by anti-aircraft fire,. 30 millimeters. And there is a hole in the plane. But Fred had his laptop (which I think he used to take to bed with him) and he was typing along, didn't even blink. I said to him, "I think we got shot," and he goes, "Yeah, I think the flight just will be a little bit shorter. Don't worry." And that was it. In fact he said, "Go sit in the cabin. They're French pilots. They might be good fun." That is even more scary because they were drinking whiskey while we were flying from Sarajevo to Split. We landed, we got through custom and he put me on the plane to Zagreb and we spent two days in Zagreb trying to work out how am I going to get to Venice where Keith was waiting for me. At the end it turned out that I couldn't actually travel directly to Venice. I was an alien or even worse. Surely in 1941 it would have been the same feeling. Fred worked out that he would put me on a flight from Zagreb to Vienna and then to Venice because I would be in transit and they wouldn't even check my passport.

KM: I was in Venice at the U.N. headquarters and Fred was keeping me up to date with what was actually going on. And it was brilliant. I hadn't seen Sabina for 2 or 3 weeks at this stage, four weeks. And he phoned up and said she's out [of Bosnia]. And it was absolutely fantastic. The fact that Fred told me was just total reassurance because everybody thought he was bullet proof. He rose above the whole thing. And he'd walk down a street, he'd never crouch, he'd never duck, he'd never flinch.

SM: When we tried to buy a ticket to Venice, this rather nicely dressed chap at the Zagreb airport said, "Oh God! Bosnian passport! I'm not allowed to sell a ticket. You're going to have to buy a return flight so that we pretend that we are coming back to Croatia." And he said it was a four figure price for a return flight in U.S. dollars and I had $250. But Fred got his American Express card. He said, "This is my wedding present." So I said, "Well we still even haven't got a date for me getting married."

So he paid for the flight, but the guy in his little glass booth wouldn't give us the ticket, saying, "Sorry I can't let you onto the plane." And this is where the big Texan comes in. He just pushed his hand through a little hole, grabbed hold of this guy's tie, pulled him back [against the window] and just said, "You just give me that ticket," and just started swearing. And the guy just froze; he was like, "Here you go." At this stage I was shaking because I realized that I'm still not out. Everything was still happening to me. Fred took my hand and said, "Don't worry, I know they look really nasty in those new uniforms, Croatian policemen, but I'll go through with you." These guys didn't' say a word. He just walked through to passport control and waited until I was on the plane.

KM: And that was all presence. That was all Fred. Nothing, nothing to do with his contacts, nothing to do with anything else, that eye contact and presence. And it's strange because despite all of the strategic involvement he had in Bosnia and Sarajevo et cetera, he still loved that personal touch and the satisfaction that he got from that. Tremendous satisfaction.

FRONTLINE: It sounds like he took an almost sentimental interest in your romance.

KM: Yeah, there was a very sentimental side to Fred. He was, in many respects, a bit of an idealist. He loved things to go the way that he'd like them to go. And in this one particular instance he was able to affect it. He was able to make it happen. And actually being able to do something and achieve something was what Fred's life was all about.

FRONTLINE : Sabina, what do you think were Fred's feelings about the people of Sarajevo?

SM: I think in a funny way he understood us. When the planes started coming in and the U.N. started sending humanitarian aid and food, the rest of the world expected from us to be grateful. But we weren't at the time, we were actually very angry. Because we didn't want feta cheese from Iran, we didn't want corned beef from England. . We didn't want hand outs. We just wanted our old life back. Fred was one of the rarest people in Sarajevo who understood why we were angry.

You can't expect from a city that had 750,000 people before the war and went down to 300,000 people, to be grateful that they were enclosed within a 9 mile wide circle and say thank you to whoever sent the food. From a Christian point of view it was a very good thing, but from the human and the pride side, it just wasn't good enough and maybe that's why he started to work on such specific projects. He was the one who asked you about your past life, he wasn't talking about the present. He would say, "So what did you do before the war started?". And try to really get to know the people. Maybe that's the reason why they related to him so well.

FRONTLINE : Did he fall in love with the people.

SM: He did.

KM: Definitely. He was dealing with a people that were besieged but were denied the weapons to defend themselves by the international community. They were incredibly proud and he respected pride and he respected opinion and he respected the way in which the Bosnian people helped themselves in adversity generally. Even with a man of such experiences himself, he still found it quite shocking how some parts of the community could be so callous and so mercenary. But the scenario itself was something that was clearly identifiable. People were surrounded and they didn't have the means to fight and they needed feeding, and they needed food. They needed water, electricity, they needed help.. And they were a community that was very, very sad about the war.

FRONTLINE: You had mentioned to us before that Fred was disappointed when he left Bosnia. Talk about that and his state of mind when he was going into Chechnya.

KM: Yeah I think in some respects he was spoiled by Iraq. He had incredible success there. When he went to Sarajevo he wanted to replicate that as any ambitious person would want to do. And he realized that he alone -- on a national scale, or on an international scale -- was not going to achieve that.

I think his great frustration was that he couldn't quite get over that wall, that wall of the American administration, the U.N. administration. What was the strategic plan at that time? --was his question. Where are the Americans going? What are they going to do? When are they going to intervene? How are they going to intervene? And he couldn't' influence that. He was outside of it, he was the other side of the wall. And he could have his successes and the water project et cetera, but he wasn't actually making an international difference, which is what he did in Iraq and what he wanted to achieve again.

And I think when he left he was disappointed because he didn't feel as though he was going any further and he wanted to find another forum whereby he could regain the success that he had achieved in Iraq. He looked at Chechnya and I can't help feeling that he looked at Chechnya in actually quite a naive way. That it was another conflict in central Europe and that he could have an influence on. He had never really been there before. He was exceptionally well read so he'd know a little bit about what was going on. But as with any situation you never really know until you're there. And he moved to Chechnya and he moved into a conflict that we haven't seen before, never in the west. Never in the sphere of American involvement or even U.N. involvement where there as such total war.

I met a Russian soldier not so long ago who had served in Sarajevo and had since served in Chechnya. And I asked him how he compared the two. And he said Sarajevo at the peak of its conflict was a walk in the park. He said Chechnya was full, total holocaust. You know when I remember getting 4- or 5000 shells in a morning in Sarajevo which I thought was a big deal and actually when you're underneath it is a big deal. But in Chechnya, there were times when they would receive 20, 30, 40,000 shell barrages in the space of 5 or 6 hours. And Fred miscalculated. Fred was going into Chechnya not to achieve a micro development, a water project, or a chain of aid or supply going into the country but to actually achieve peace in Chechnya. He went into it quite so bullish because I think of his frustration of not being able to achieve anything in Sarajevo and in Bosnia.

I thought about this a lot and I thought about what it must have been like to have been with him when it all happened. I think maybe in that one moment, he would have realized the risk -- probably for the first time -- of what aid work is all about. I think his death was, if anything, a lesson to aid workers around the world, and to administrations around the world, that conflicts such as that have no respect.



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