the lost american Mission-minded

[This article originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News, July 1991]

Zakho, Iraq--Back in April, in the early days of the Kurdish relief operation, there was an air of mystery about Fred Cuny. One day he would be huddled with Kurdish leaders in the mountain camps before flying away in an Army helicopter with a Special Forces escort. The next day he would turn up at a top-level meeting of allied military brass, State Department officials and international relief administrators.

He seemed to be everywhere, this tall man from Dallas with graying hair, blue jeans and serious cowboy boots.

"CIA, gotta be," ventured one journalist.

"This guy is beyond CIA," responded another. "He actually knows what he's doing."

Beyond CIA indeed. Fred Cuny makes his life confronting disaster. War, famine, earthquake, hurricane--the 46-year-old Mr. Cuny is at home in the eye of any storm.

Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp., Mr. Cuny's company on North Hall Street, is a private firm specializing in information and advice on disaster assistance.

"Intertect is the best in the world, and I'm the most experienced," said Mr. Cuny, "No brag, just fact."

Having worked on 70 disaster relief operations throughout the world over the last 23 years, Mr. Cuny seems to have little need for false modesty. Other relief workers and US government officials agree that he's at the top of his profession.

Mr. Cuny is a man with a mission. He seeks to save the lives of poor people and those who are likely to die unjustly in the Third World as a result of natural and manmade disasters.

He pursues the mission "with the single-minded determination of a religious fanatic," according to Maj. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the US. Army officer who commanded allied forces in northern Iraq before their withdrawal earlier this month.

Mr. Cuny worked on the relief effort for Gen. Garner.

"Fred Cuny wants to save people's lives," said Gen. Garner, "and he doesn't mind ruffling a few feathers to do it."

One United Nations official said: "Intertect is not a company. It's a movement."

When the Kurds fled to the mountains of northern Iraq and southern Turkey earlier this year after an abortive rebellion against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and network television began showing the catastrophe on the nightly news, the State Department asked Mr. Cuny to drop everything and help them get the situation under control.

It was a bit awkward because Mr. Cuny was already working for the U.S. government in southern Iraq and Kuwait, trying to protect Palestinians and Iraqi Shiites caught up in a cycle of post-Persian Gulf war vengeance.

He left a team of Intertect specialists and Army reservists behind to document human rights abuses and flew to the north on April 16. He stayed until earlier this month when US. forces pulled back across the border into Turkey.

When Mr. Cuny first arrived in northern Iraq, his job was to help figure out how many Kurds had fled to the mountains, where they were, what they needed in terms of food, clothing, shelter and medicine and how to get them back home.

The situation was confusing and desperate. Some estimated that there were a million Kurds along the border, and relief officials said as many as 1,000 a day were dying of disease and exposure. Mr. Cuny suspected that the numbers were inflated, but he didn't know how much.

"The biggest challenge was to get people to calm down and take stock of the situation," he recalled. "Some credible people were making some pretty wild claims. A British forces reconnaissance team came back and said that they had spotted 200,000 people in a valley that we had never heard of before."

Mr. Cuny's goal, which quickly became the goal of the allied forces and the overall international relief effort was to get the Kurds out of the mountains and back into the Iraqi valleys from which they had fled.

His concern was not so much that Kurds faced death from exposure, since he knew that the weather would be warming soon. What Mr. Cuny wanted to avoid was creating a series of permanent refugee camps in the mountains along the border where people would have to be supported by relief efforts indefinitely.

The United Nations, the World Bank, the United States and many foreign governments retain Intertect to help them avoid making such classic disaster relief mistakes. Some in the business argue that Cambodians', Afghans and Ethiopians have been leading half lives at international expense for more than a decade because well-meaning relief officials made the wrong decisions under difficult circumstances.

Refugees and relief efforts are at the mercy of whoever controls the military situation. In northern Iraq, that control so far has been in the hands of the US. Army and other allied forces, which made the task of helping the refugees much easier.

Mr. Cuny joined forces with military and civilian officials in Iraq and southern Turkey to ensure that the Kurds didn't become stranded on the mountain tops.

"People displaced by conflict should not be condemned to generations of life in a squalid refugee camp," said Mr. Cuny. "The challenge is to create conditions that will enable them to go back home and resume their lives. It's more cost-effective and it's more humane."

Measured against the standard, Operation Provide Comfort, as it was called, proved a big success. Gen. Garner and Mr. Cuny crossed the border back into Turkey on July 15, their mission accomplished. The Kurds came down from the mountains and largely returned home, many passing through a transitional tent city in Zakho designed by Mr. Cuny.

Mr. Cuny is the first to admit that a series of unique conditions contributed to the relief operation's success. President Bush, after initially hesitating to get involved with the Kurds, sent U. S. military forces. Their presence put an end to the Iraqi military offensive against the Kurds. It also provided the airlift capability necessary to drop tons of food, water and supplies to the refugees in the mountains.

The military presence also made it possible to convince the Kurds that it was safe to come down from the mountains. A group of more than 3,000 allied forces remains in southern Turkey as a rapid response force if fighting imperils the Kurds again.

"In many ways, this was a model operation because we could count on the enormous heft and skilled leadership of the allied military forces," said Mr. Cuny. "The resources were available because of the gulf war. All we had to do was redirect the flow and apply them to a different set of problems. The chances of that scenario recurring in another disaster are slim."

Fred Cuny would know. Over the past 20 years, he and his staff have built Intertect into the "collective memory" of international relief providers, a repository for mistakes made and lessons learned as the world has dealt with natural and manmade disasters.

All this leaves very little time for a personal life. Mr. Cuny, who is divorced, is on the road 10 or 11 months a year. "My children are grown, but I make it a point to get home for a college graduation or a marriage," he said. "I might not be there for long, but I do get back."

His first exposure to disaster relief was as a Red Cross volunteer in Biafra, an area of Nigeria that waged a losing war for independence in 1969. He was struck by how little experience most of the relief workers had and by how many mistakes were made.

"I became fascinated with the fact that so few of the people there had any professional training for what they were doing," he recalled "Everybody was just shooting from the hip because they didn't have any historical basis for making decisions."

Mr. Cuny collaborated with a few friends from Biafra to write a series of relief manuals based on their experiences. The manuals proved so popular that he finally had to choose between his job as a city planner working with Carter & Burgess Engineers and a career as a disaster relief consultant.

Mr. Cuny founded Intertect with several associates in 1971 and has traveled the globe ever since. The company is small but successful, he said. It has fewer than 10 full-time staff members and an equal number of part-time consultants in such exotic fields as plate tectonics.

Mr. Cuny describes himself as a liberal Democrat, though he's a strong believer in allowing market-forces a role in disaster relief.

He is often critical of international relief agencies, and maintains that "we really don't need a lot of these organizations."

He said that in many situations understanding and manipulating market forces can be far more important and effective than classic relief operations. Mr. Cuny credits the Bush administration with taking market intervention seriously after earlier administrations gave the notion mere lip service.

"Too many people die because the world doesn't really care how relief work is done," he said. Much of what relief agencies do is "just for show," he said, where they end up saving people who were not going to die in the first place while ignoring the underlying causes of the disaster.

When Operation Provide Comfort was winding down, Mr. Cuny had a little time to relax. Intertect entered a raft in the first--and what everyone involved hoped would be the last--Zahko Whitewater Race, with Mr. Cuny at the helm. The race was won by an elite U.S. Marine unit trained for clandestine air and sea insertion operations but Intertect finished fourth, beating out teams from the British Royal Marines and Italian and Spanish commando forces.

Ultimately, Mr. Cuny expects to tire of the road and hopes to resettle into a more normal existence in Dallas. He returned home from Iraq on Thursday. He said he resisted the temptation to more his office to Washington or New York because Dallas offers a lower cost of living and doing business, and a superior quality of life.

"I'm a Texan," he said, who holds a degree from the University of Houston and did graduate work at Rice." "This is where I have my roots. At some point, I'm going to give something back to Dallas."

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