I was living in Rwanda when most of the stories about Fred's disappearance came
out in the press. Many of them reviewed much of his life's work. There was
considerable praise for what he had accomplished in his efforts to reform
emergency relief operations, and of course criticism of his bold and sometimes
I met Fred in eastern Sudan in 1985, and began working with him in 1990.
Knowing Fred as I did during these years, there was little I could disagree
with in what I read. But there was a conclusion drawn in one of the more
comprehensive articles that seriously misinterprets what Fred was up to in his
later years, and why he died in Chechnya.
The conclusion I am referring to is that Fred was killed in Chechnya because he
had gotten in over his head in an effort to become a player in the politics of
civil war; that he should have just stuck with the humanitarian aspects of the
conflict. Others have suggested that his actions were driven by a need to
achieve an important government position. These views not only misinterpret
Fred's intentions in Chechnya, they completely miss the focus of his life's
work. There is much about Fred's life and about the world of humanitarian work
in general that I believe either counter these conclusions or put certain
events into a different context. I would like to detail some of those below.
It is impossible to convey the changes one goes through when witness to deep
human suffering on an individual and a massive scale. The sight of dead
children and the sounds of agonizing parents and siblings are tragic enough;
to live with these sights and sounds on a daily basis is quite another thing.
But as difficult as this may be, having your best efforts to bring assistance
to those suffering impeded by inept field directors or uncaring government
leaders, can be more demoralizing and more defeating than the suffering itself.
It should come as no surprise that for many relief workers the greatest
challenges are most often to enlighten field bureaucrats, and to motivate
government leaders, to respond to crises with rapid and effective action.
Whatever else Fred might have had in mind while going into Chechnya, I am sure
this was foremost in his thoughts.
Fred was from a generation of emergency relief specialists who were born out of
the disasters in Biafra and Bangladesh. The suffering caused by war and
famine during those crises was enough to move many volunteers to dedicate
their lives to emergency relief operations. But for Fred and a few others, it
was the unnecessary suffering and loss of life resulting from unenlightened or
inept emergency relief efforts that was most disturbing. Their response was
not to just continue in emergency relief operations, but to revolutionize the
delivery of international humanitarian assistance. Like INTERTECT, Medecins
Sans Frontieres, now one of the most innovative and professional emergency
medical relief organizations in the world, was also created by people who were
profoundly disturbed by what they saw in Biafra and Bangladesh. As with Fred,
their actions upon returning to their home countries speak loudest about what
they experienced. They created new organizations and developed new
approaches, methodologies, and strategies for responding to humanitarian
Fred Cuny was by far the most outspoken, most innovative, and most determined
of this generation. At both the conceptual and operational levels he
challenged the status quo through books, articles, field manuals, training
guides, and most importantly, through action on the ground. He showed us time
and again how the delivery of emergency assistance - empowering people to
rebuild there own lives, rather than sustaining dependent victims - demands
the highest degree of innovative thinking and the diligence to development
solutions that address the cause of the problem, not just its consequences.
While several of those who struggled with these same problems in the field
moved on to tackle them at the political level - MSF alone has produced four
ministers, five senators, as well as high-level advisors on humanitarian
affairs in ministries such as defense - Fred continued to fight the battles on
the front-lines. This is where he was happiest; this is where he knew he was
Some of Fred's critics say he was motivated by a need for attention; that he
was unhappy if he wasn't where the action was, or people weren't taking his
view into account. Fred was not involved in relief and reconstruction to
become powerful or famous. The latter was simply a by-product of his
incredibly innovative and comprehensive thinking, and, of course, his
audacious manner. If he was constantly looking for the limelight, why was he
always so intent on moving a situation out of the emergency phase, away from
overflowing camps and massive distribution of imported relief goods; to avoid
wherever possible that which drew the influx of relief workers and the press?
There is no question that Fred was unhappy when people were not paying
attention to his ideas, but who isn't? When he was sidelined it was
frustrating for many people as it often meant that those running operations
were not listening to field experts and consequently wasting precious time and
resources while lives were unnecessarily lost. Fred was not the only unhappy
person when this happened.
Of course Fred liked to be where the action was - show me an emergency relief
specialist who wouldn't. But it was not the driving force in his life, nor was
it for the excitement or the attention. Large complex emergencies are usually
where the most has gone wrong, and continues to go wrong even after massive
inputs of international aid. It is in these types of crises that one can have
the greatest impact on changing the system, and in many cases influence relief
efforts so that fewer mistakes are made and more lives are saved. Fred
understood better than most the imperative of systemic change, and was capable
of some of the best thinking in the business on just what needed to be
changed. If he wanted relief workers as well as major donors to start
thinking of more comprehensive and durable solutions, such as alternative
economic interventions to massive distribution of imported food aid, large
scale emergencies is where he could have the greatest influence.
I would also like to mention here that many times Fred visited a remote region
to check on a small project, when he could have been involved in a more
"popular" emergency, or flying his glider in Texas. Driving at night and
sleeping in trucks during the day to avoid fighter jets hostile to any thing
on the ground, and living off tea and biscuits for days, just to check in and
show a little solidarity with his field staff, was not a rare thing for Fred
If he was driven in his later years to become more involved at the political
level, it had more to do with the changing political environment of
humanitarian operations brought on by the end of the Cold War than it did with
ambition. In Northern Iraq, Fred had first-hand experience with just how much
the world of humanitarian operations was changing. After years of struggling
with incremental change in a system often dominated by petrified bureaucrats
and inexperienced volunteers, he found himself involved in an operation that
can only be described as the beginning of a paradigm shift. But then came
Somalia, and the shift changed directions to the point that in the years that
followed, major powers avoided involvement in crises whenever possible.
Humanitarians found their efforts used increasingly to political ends. In the
absence of any geopolitical interest in many areas of concern, it fell to them
to do whatever possible to inform and motivate major donors into taking action.
This is the reason I believe Fred went to Chechnya.
If Fred had decided to get more politically involved, it was because the same
frustrations that drove others of his generation into politics years ago, had
finally gotten to him. And if he had been given a position of authority, you
can rest assured that he would have continued to upset just about everyone
around him, and the humanitarian world would be a much brighter place for it.
Fred might have thought that he could possibly do more in a position of
authority, but it was not dreams of personal power in Washington, but rather
the sick and cruel reality he witnessed in places like Chechnya, that most
influenced his actions.
If the stories of Fred's death are true, he died a cruel and senseless death.
He was bound, and marched through the woods. He was told to kneel, and
possibly witnessed the execution of one of his companions. In a cold, dark
forest, thousands of miles from family or friends, someone Fred had come to
help, put a gun to the back of his head and pulled the trigger, extinguishing a
brilliant life. It is a nightmare that many of us who have worked in complex
emergencies have had, and one that a few of us have narrowly escaped. These
things have happened at check-points in rebel and government-held territory
from Nicaragua to Rwanda to Chechnya. Fred knew that. He saw clearly the
insanity in Chechnya and he knew how vulnerable he was, but still he acted.
Fred died doing what he always did, what very few others are willing to do:
going to the source of the problem to stop the killing.
To miss this is to miss the best part of Fred Cuny and the best of a rich and
who killed fred cuny .
map of cuny's world .
from his laptop .
on the life .
his radio interviews .
special reports .
friends & colleagues .
viewer discussion .
press reaction .
tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation