the lost american 'Fred Cuny in Bosnia'

From-The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the
Refugee  by  Christopher Merrill

[Reprinted with permission of Milkweek Editions, Minneapolis, MN]

Frederick Cuny is a legendary name in humanitarian circles. Head of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction, a private consulting firm based in Dallas, he has been called "the Red Adair of disaster relief"--and has been accused of working for the CIA. In truth, Cuny is a former civil rights worker and self-described activist Democrat, a prolific writer and licensed pilot; he started out as a city planner but for more than twenty years he has organized relief efforts for victims of war, famine, and natural catastrophe. Intertect, renowned for its ability to act quickly, has provided technical assistance in more than sixty countries, including Armenia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Kurdistan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, and Zaire. A brusque ex Marine, Cuny has built a reputation for getting things done. In Bosnia, that meant restoring water and natural gas to Sarajevo, developing a winterization program for houses and refugee centers, and repairing classrooms.

The construction of an emergency water treatment system for Sarajevo was a typical Intertect project. In the first days of the war the Serbs severed all the water lines into the city, leaving Sarajevans with only three sources of clean water--two small wells under the city's sole brewery and the Miljacka River. The Miljacka runs through the center of town and is, predictably, exposed to shell fire and sniping. (Nearly 80% of all casualties in the first year of the war occurred within 250 meters of either side of the river.) Thus in April 1993, Intertect and IRC contracted with a Houston engineering consortium to build five portable water treatment modules, which the U.S. military then shipped to Croatia. Loaded onto Canadian air force transport planes (with only inches to spare), they were flown into Sarajevo in August, at the rate of one per week. The airport was on the front line, in the sights of Serbian artillery, so the modules were pulled from the plane on wheels designed to be hooked up to a big-rig truck. In less than ten minutes they were one their way to tunnel in the city, where they would be safe from shelling.

Cuny's local engineers and water experts had found on old civic maps a network of cisterns and channels which could be refilled and used to distribute water. Accordingly, speak out against human rights abuses and gross violations of humanitarian principles is ridiculous. It's not worth the price of being able to get things in."

But in the wake of the Gulf War the intervention on behalf of the Kurds has introduced the principle that victims have rights to international aid. "It isn't codified yet," he said, "but it's coming. As long as there's no major bipolar confrontation with both sides squaring off and using conflicts as proxy wars, we have a chance of establishing the principle of going in an resolving issues peacefully, or by using force, if necessary."

Cuny wanted to redefine refugees to include anyone displaced by conflict, and then expand UNHCR to become an activist agency. A UN High Commissioner for War Victims, if you will. Only then could we "start dealing with something if you will. Only then could we "start dealing with something the moment it happens. We've got to get beyond this idea of strict neutrality. We've got to say, if people are in harm's way, we've got to get them out of there. The first and most important thing is saving lives. Whatever it takes to save lives, you do it, and the hell with national sovereignty. There's a higher responsibility: get the people out of harm's way, then deal with the other issues. It may mean you evacuate them to safe areas in their own country. Or request military assistance to create a safe area. Or provide food through the back door, if a government cuts its own people off. It has to be a proactive agency--you can't wait for victims to come to your door. Go out and deal with the problem when it starts."

This would require decisive action from the State Department, which could create an office of humanitarian crisis management, uniting political, humanitarian, and peacekeeping functions. "We have to get our house in order," said Cuny, "and merge these three issues. We need to project humanitarian assistance in the same way that the military projects power. If we can do that, we can go to the military projects power. If we can do that, we can go to the UN and say, this is how we want you to do it."

The prevailing policy has to change, as the war in Bosnia has made plain. "The UN's presence has certainly helped keep access open for humanitarian goods. We've been able to do airdrops and get supplies in on the airlift. Have we had success? In a limited way. Nobody's dying of lack of food, they're dying because of bullets. " The real story was "the tremendous failure of all the collective security arrangements"--of the UN Security Council, UNPROFOR, NATO, CSCE, and the European Community. And the result?

"Some people think it's the death of the EC," he said. "I think it's the death of the European spirit of doing anything outside of what's traditionally thought of as Europe. It could mark the resurgence of ultra nationalism based on ethnic or religious definitions. I worry about the future of Europe because of its failure to do anything in Bosnia."

I could not imagine him worrying for long. Activism and accountability were his watchwords. Tragedy aside, a disaster, he liked to say, was also an opportunity: "If we throw junk aid at a problem, there won't be any impact, even if it might soothe someone's conscience, especially donors." For example, he recommended buying land after an earthquake; when the rich sell it off to get enough money to rebuild their industries, there is a chance to move the poor onto good land.

"Start with something you can really do, " he said. "Many agencies want to give them tents. That doesn't solve the problem. Give them tools and let them salvage what they can from the fallen buildings. Ninety percent is reusable. You let them take the bricks and steel and wood, put in some materials to help them build components, and you've begun reconstruction. If you just give people a tent, what does that tell them? Either you don't want them on that land or this isn't the solution. You slow down and reconstruction and create expectations you can't meet. But if you give them a tool and some basic materials the message is, Get on with it. Let's get this thing over with. Let's rebuild the community."

In Sarajevo his self-help initiatives, implemented by IRC, took a different form: In the first winter of the siege, city resident were encouraged to tap into the natural gas line running from Russia. IRC imported thirty thousand meters of plastic pipe, promising it to any neighborhood willing to dig trenches in which to bury it, and then taught people how to tap into the line; the Serbs, who also needed the natural gas, would not completely shut it off. In the spring, Cuny and others encouraged IRC to bring in a thousand tons of seeds for backyard and balcony gardens; by late summer, fresh produce was in the market and Sarajevans were laying in preserves and canned vegetables for the winter.

"The first line of defense in famine and conflicts," he said, "is to get the markets going."

He praised IRC for employing city residents to manufacture beds and bedrolls for refugee centers--anything to pump money into the economy instead of buying goods overseers (though many agencies are hampered by governmental policies requiring them to purchase goods in donor countries). He even saw some merit in trading with the enemy, hence his grudging approval of the black market, which was responsible for bringing in resources --cigarettes, liquor, fresh produce--the UN could not supply. "Up to a point, every time you trade across lines you break those lines down."

"And I'm not naive about corruption," he said, grinning. "I come from Texas, the most corrupt state in the Union, with the possible exception of Louisiana--and I grew up in Louisiana! In every war zone you expect to deal with corrupt militia and politicians and gangs. In this war it's clear the Bosnians, for all their faults, are the good guys. Their cause is worth fighting for unless they completely surrender to the mafias. They haven't done that yet."

Cuny would know, having suffered repeated delays in securing permission to run the water treatment system. Some government officials had blackmailed the IRC by refusing to declare the water clean unless the NGO added several hundred thousand dollars' worth of equipment for the system, all to be purchased in Bosnia.

"You just keep fighting them," he said.

Ideally, humanitarians could help combat corruption, in the same way that they serve as witnesses against human rights abuses. Wherever humanitarian agencies expand their presence, he contended, there are fewer human rights abuses. In Banja Luka, for example, where Serbian forces were waging an intense campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslims, one UNHCR representative came up with an ingenious plan to stop some of the roundups. In his white UN vehicle he would follow suspicious cars heading into Bosnian neighborhoods. Risking his own life, he would park his car and go to the house he thought was targeted. "The Serbs wouldn't know why he was there," said Cuny, "and they'd leave."

But this was the work of an unusually dedicated individual. In most Serb-held areas UNHCR made little effort to protect civilians, though this was one of its missions. (The others were to provide humanitarian aid to displaced persons and refugees, then help them return to their homes.) In Cuny's view UNHCR had never developed a comprehensive humanitarian strategy, despite having lobbied to be the lead agency in this crisis. So much more could have been done.

" At the beginning of the war, when the Serbs didn't know what they could get away with, UNHCR could have gone to those places where Muslims were being attacked and made their presence felt. Bring in their own people. Deputize NGOs. Get bodies there to report on what was happening. We know increasing the presence of humanitarians dampens human rights abuses.

"But they didn't do it, " he complained. "Every strategy you use to protect people, they ignored. They absolved themselves of any responsibility--without coming up with a plan of their own. They should have said, "The way we've done business in a country of asylum is not going to work in Bosnia. So what do we do?' But they just settled into a comfortable routine here in Zagreb. They said it was too dangerous. I say they were so worried about their own staff they didn't worry enough about the victims. If you're going to save people, you have to take some risks."

"But they didn't do it," he complained. "Every strategy you use to protect people, they ignored. They absolved themselves of any responsibility--without coming up with a plan of their own. They should have said, 'The way we've done business in a country of asylum is not going to work in Bosnia. So what do we do?' But they just settled into a comfortable routine here in Zagreb. They said it was too dangerous. I say they were so worried about their own. They should have said," 'The way we've done business in a country of asylum is not going to work in Bosnia. So what do we do?' But they just settled into a comfortable routine here in Zagreb. They said it was too dangerous . I say they were so worried about their own staff they didn't worry enough about the victims. If you're going to save people, you have to take some risks."

"But what about their lack of support from the international community?" I asked.

"We design our operations on the assumption that there won't be international support," he replied. "We never expect it. We're surprised when there is intervention. We'd hope to see NATO come in and rescue Bosnia. But if they don't, that doesn't mean you stick your feet in the air and look like a dead cat. You make your own opportunities."

In the end it was a matter of accountability, at every level. UNHCR, human rights observers, humanitarian agencies, the media, all had a role to play in ensuring that the parties responsible for war atrocities knew the international community was watching them.

"Use the radio and flyers, deliver protests to the mayors of these towns, whatever it takes. Make them accountable," he said.

Cuny did not believe the War Crimes Tribunal would amount to much, even though thousands of pages of evidence documenting crimes against humanity have been collected and sent to the Hague. So he had another idea: publish the names of all the war criminals in their villages and cities. This would not bring back the dead, of course, nor would it offer justice to the rape victims. But it would make a statement and set a precedent for future conflicts. Shame is a powerful weapon. If nothing else, Cuny said, the war criminals' wives and neighbors would know what they had done. "And nobody wants their children to know they were rapists."

I wondered how the Serbs, who had so shamed themselves in this war, might be re integrated into the international community. Cuny thought Serbia would become a pariah, like Iran. "The destruction of Vukovar and Sarajevo will not be forgiven the Serbs," wrote the American poet Charles Simic, who before the war and translated a number of Serbian poets and promoted their work in this country.

Whatever moral credit they had as a result of their history they have squandered in these two acts. The suicidal and abysmal idiocy of nationalism is revealed here better than anywhere else. No human being or group has the right to pass the death sentence on a city.

"Defend your own, but respect what others have," my grandfather used to say, and he was a highly decorated officer in the First World War and certainly a Serbian patriot. I imagine he would have agreed with me. There will be no happy future for people who have made the innocent suffer.

And the danger, according to Cuny, was that the Serbs might come out of the war believing themselves to be victims of the West, making the region even more unstable. Like Germany, which after World War II attempted to purge itself of Nazism and reckon with its crimes, Serbia must come to terms with what it has wrought in Croatia and Bosnia. It must do some soul searching, he said.

"It doesn't look like that will happen, though," I said.

"It's not over yet," Cuny said. "If war goes on too long, they'll pay a price as well."

I was inclined to believe him. On one trip to Sarajevo I had read the Intertect's briefing book on Bosnia, a reference work on the humanitarian and military situations. Impressed with the accuracy of Cuny's predictions about the progress of the war, I had always wanted to ask him what his secret was. He replied with a story.

"One of my flying buddies is an instructor on Lear jets. He told me about a scenario on the simulator where the pilots, especially the experienced ones, kept flying the plane into the ground. They couldn't figure out why. They looked at cause and effect and why people make certain decisions. They looked at real cases. Then they fed all this information--everything from power settings to weather briefings--into the training program. Sure enough, the experienced pilots kept crashing. Why?

"Well, they realized the problem was the weather briefing. In every accident it said the weather at the destinations would be better than it was. They weren't mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario. They thought the cloud ceiling would be 700[feet] broken, but the weather had changed and now it was 300. As they went down to decision height, where you're guaranteed obstruction clearance, they kept expecting to break out of the clouds. So they pushed a little lower and a little lower. Next thing you know, Boom . They were in the ground. The same scenario applies to disaster relief, and to disastrous decisions made at the top.

"There's someone at the UN who should be prosecuted as a war criminal," Cuny argued, his voice rising. "Twice in the past he delayed making critical decisions, and thousands of people died. I went to him and said, 'Look, the first time I understand why you didn't act. But the second time the same thing happened, and you delayed making decisions until it was too late. Why?' He said, 'I always figured if things got really bad the West was going to come with a massive humanitarian airlift.'

"My God, do you know how much it costs to airlift enough food to feed 500,000 people? I actually sat down with this man and worked it out. He said, 'No wonder they didn't do it.' but he was always blaming the international community for not coming to his rescue. He expected a certain outcome, which led him to take risks, because like too many people he had this idea from the news media and the history of relief operations that in a big crisis the cavalry was going to come. It rarely happens.

"In disasters these same people expect a certain outcome, and then things change, and they're too slow to adapt. Next thing you know they've got a major problem on their hands. Last summer UNHCR was convinced the Serbs would accept the Vance-Owen peace plan, so they quit preparing for the winter. They coasted through the whole debate, and suddenly the plan was dead. They didn't have enough food and no winterizations program. Typical situation--they always choose the optimistic scenario.

"What we've got to do," he said, "is focus on how you teach a decision maker what his options are and when to act. You have to explain that the longer you delay making decisions, the more the chance of making good ones declines. It goes from being a good choice to a bad choice to no choice."

By the fall of 1994 there were few choices left in Bosnia. When Germany had first prepared to recognize Slovenia and Croatia, Cuny suggested, the international community had its best chance to act, and it failed. "One thing I've learned about dictators," he said with a smile, "is most of them are cowards. They may be bullies, but they won't surrender their power unless threatened by an overwhelming force. There were times when our threats, if they were credible, would have been enough. To get the high ground back now will require a more force.

"And the question goes beyond containment when it comes to Kosovo." Serbia's southern province, 90 percent Albanian and suffering repression by the Serbs, was, in the words of one diplomat, "a massacre waiting to happen": Milosevic was believed to have designs on Kosovo, and it was said the JNA could overrun the province in forty-eight hours. Some observers called Kosovo "Europe's dirty little secret": the Serbs were openly practicing apartheid against the Albanians--and no one was stopping them. "Kosovo is dangerous," Cuny said, "because it involves Albania and Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, and of course Greece. It's the fault line between the Orthodox and Muslim worlds. And it ignites all the old Balkan questions. You've really got to stomp it out. It's not going to burn out on its own."

His thoughts shifted back to the present conflict. "The real tragedy of Bosnia," he said, "is that the best people are leaving. The young people, the innovative ones who would be the real heart of the country, see no future there. They're giving up on the idea of Bosnia. And any hope of a viable country remaining after this war is rapidly evaporating. So the Serbs have won an immoral victory."

He signaled for the check. He was on his way to Berlin to discuss a new Carnegie Endowment report on the Third Balkan War. The recent republication of the Endowment's report on the first two Balkan Wars had inspired George Kennan to draw conclusions about the current war. After noting many similarities in the behavior of the combatants in all three wars, Kennan set two requirements for those on the "outside" seeking to the end conflict: " One will be a capacity for innovation with respect to the rights and duties implicit in the term 'sovereignty.' The other will be force--minimum force, of course, but force nevertheless--and the readiness to employ it where nothing else will do." Humanitarians like Frederick Cuny were already meeting Kennan's first requirement. The second was a story to save for another day.

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