Over his 26-year career, Cuny worked in crises in more than fifty countries, including Biafra, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, and Chechnya. His larger than life personality, uncanny ability to “make things happen,” and his innovative ideas drove him to the forefront of the disaster response field.
In 1952 Cuny moved with his family to Texas. He had a passion for flying and hoped to become a fighter pilot. He studied engineering at Texas A&M University, specializing in problems in developing countries, and urban planning at the University of Houston. Unable to pass his language requirements, Cuny could not go on to Officers’ Candidate School, thus ending his dream of life as an officer in the military. However, he became increasingly involved in causes such as the problems of local Mexican migrant workers.
Cuny became an accomplished civil engineer, working on large construction projects such as a radar installation at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. At some point he became dissatisfied and decided to become a disaster relief specialist who used his training in engineering to do humanitarian work. Cuny was hired by organizations such as the United Nations and private foundations to design and carry out relief plans. Cuny was able to maintain the autonomy to devise solutions his way and became increasingly active as a policy adviser. Cuny’s overriding goal was to institute a radical restructuring of the way the disaster relief system operated throughout the world.
In 1971 he founded the non-profit Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp. of Dallas, Texas, a relief mission technical assistance and training company. His company became the major disaster relief agency, Interworks. Cuny also founded the Center for the Study of Societies in Crisis which became known as the Cuny Center after his death. He worked in countries such as Biafra, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia.
Cuny played a major role in providing relief to Kurds displaced by the First Gulf War. He was part of a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that was sent to Northern Iraq to help Kurds who had fled into the mountains. At the time, the United States and allies were airdropping food and supplies to the Kurds. However, Cuny and the rest of the DART team quickly realized that in order to actually end the crisis, the Kurds had to come down from the mountains. They advocated for a creation of a security zone that would include the locations of the Kurdish villages. The Iraqi army – who was currently in that area – would be forced to leave, and American troops would take their place to ensure the safety of residents. Then, “transit camps” – offering much better services that those on the top of the mountain – would be created, to encourage the Kurds to come down and eventually return home.
Although the senior American military officers in Kurdistan were receptive to the idea, there was reluctance farther up the chain of command, including concerns about mission creep. Undeterred, Cuny took the plan to the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz and quickly won him over. Abramowitz contacted the White House and the State Department, and Cuny’s idea was swiftly implemented.
At the end of his life he was working closely with George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and was instrumental in the early stages of founding the International Crisis Group, which seeks to institutionalize the knowledge base of relief experts. Cuny was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1995, but disappeared before he could officially receive his award.
In April 1995, Cuny and his team of two Russian Red Cross doctors and an interpreter disappeared in Chechnya while seeking to negotiate a ceasefire. Cuny’s family believes that although they were in contact with the Chechen forces under Dzhokhar Dudayev who were meant to pass them on for safe keeping, they were arrested and executed under the orders of Rizvan Elbiev (Elbiyev), a local Chechen rebel counterintelligence commander. It is suspected that the Russians, antagonised by Cuny’s published criticism of the war, disseminated propaganda that Cuny and his team were Russian spies. Their remains were never found.