Nov. 14, 1944
Frederick Charles Cuny is born in New Haven, Connecticut, oldest of four. The family moves to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and later to Dallas, Texas when Cuny is eight, where he grows up during the early stages of the VietNam War. He dreams of becoming a Marine combat pilot and obtains a pilot license while still in high school.
Fred graduates from Brian Adams High School in east Dallas, already with his pilot’s license and two years of high school ROTC. He enrolls in the military cadet program at Texas A&M University, leaves before graduating, and later transfers to Texas College of Arts and Industries in Kingsville. While at Kingsville, he becomes interested in humanitarian work after visiting low-income neighborhoods in Mexico and witnessing the plight of immigrant farm workers living in South Texas.
Between his Freshman and Sophomore year, when he is not attending a Marine camp in Quantico, Virginia, Fred works on a cargo freighter in Central and South America. This is his first taste of the Third World and the first time Fred sees that everyone does not live in comfortable suburbs such as the one where he grew up.
1964 – 1966
Fred attends Texas A&I University in Kingsville, Texas where he meets his wife, Beth, and undergoes a political metamorphosis. By the time he leaves A&I he is heavily involved in civil rights issues for Chicano students as well as free speech issues on campus.
Fred marries Beth in a small ceremony in Kingsville. Brandan Craig Cuny, his only son, is born the same year. He and Beth move to Houston.
Fred receives a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston, where he studies Urban Planning. He also runs as a liberal Democrat in a special election to fill a vacant seat in the Texas House of Representatives. The suburban Houston district is very conservative, and Fred places 13th out of 16 candidates with slightly more than one percent of the vote.
After graduation, Fred works in the small town of Eagle Pass, Texas on the Mexican border in a project funded under President Johnson’s War on Poverty. There he developed solutions to long-standing infrastructure and public health problems. Essential to Cuny’s success was his approach to grassroots participation, which later became a defining feature of his approach to humanitarian aid projects – in organizing people to help themselves improve their lives.
After Eagle Pass, Fred works with the Carter and Burgess Engineering firm in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is assigned to the massive construction project of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
Fred takes a leave of absence from a job with Carter & Burgess, to go to Biafra where he experienced his first international humanitarian crisis, when the region attempts to secede from Nigeria.
After Biafra, Cuny establishes Intertect, a small private company dedicated to providing technical assistance, mainly to voluntary agencies, NGOs, the US Government, and United Nations organizations. He worked as a freelance consultant, a role he played the rest of his life.
When of the most destructive cyclones in history struck East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), killing some 300,000 people and displacing displaced 10 million East Pakistanis, Cuny is hired by Oxfam to serve as an advisor in East Pakistan. He later described this assignment as life changing because it was there that he was first fully immersed in the vast, often dysfunctional machinery of the international disaster relief system, an array of international organizations, governmental agencies and NGOs.
Because of Cuny’s work in East Pakistan in 1970-71 for Oxfam, the NGO calles upon him again after the earthquake near Managua, Nicaragua in 1972. Oxfam askes him to plan a camp for the earthquake survivors. This is his first use of shelter units forming a cluster around a common space to encourage community interaction, mutual support and security, as opposed to the military model of tents in a grid of straight rows.
Appreciating Cuny’s work, Oxfam requests Cuny’s assistance with reconstruction after the Guatemala earthquake in 1976, one of the most destructive in the history of the Western Hemisphere at the time. Approximately 258,000 houses were destroyed, leaving 1.2 million people homeless. Oxfam asks Cuny to conceptualize a strategy for housing reconstruction. His response is a novel approach called “Programa Kuchuba’l.” In it, Cuny incorporates a high degree of citizen participation at all levels and includes an educational component for both the general public and local builders, with the goal of ‘building back better.’
Cuny is contracted to advise on the Kampuchean refugee camp design and management in Thailand. He is able to implement the ‘community unit layout’ of camps, which integrated a sanitation/latrine solution as well as access to water into the design concept, aspects that proved fundamental to achieving public health as well as social benefits.
Cuny responds to the Ethiopian refugee crisis in Somalia.
Cuny and Intertect colleagues undertake projects in over a dozen countries to identify housing vulnerable to disasters, to develop recommendations on how to safely retrofit the vulnerable housing, as well as programs to train local builders to implement these improved construction techniques.
Cuny spearheads three international conferences on how to build earthen and un-reinforced masonry housing safely in earthquake prone regions.
Cuny begins working with the U.S. Bureau of Refugee Programs in Lebanon on providing assistance to Palestinian refugees. He also becomes the co-founder of the University of Wisconsin Disaster Management Center and makes major contributions to the development of the curriculum and content of several courses.
1983 – 1988
Fred is involved in the response to the displaced by the civil war in Sri Lanka. He continues to respond to requests for advice on assistance in Sri Lanka into the 1990s.
Cuny’s book “Disasters and Development”, published by Oxford University Press, inspires a generation of aid workers to think more methodically about what is needed in different types of natural disasters.
During the famine in Ethiopia, Cuny continues to implement his revolutionary methodologies and demonstrates to aid agencies the importance of simultaneously working across multiple sectors and domains to address root causes and solve inter-sectoral problems.
With the famine crisis in the sub-Saharan Africa, Fred is called to the Sudan to oversee the running of the burgeoning refugee camps, caused by a massive immigration from war-torn, parched Ethiopia. Fred is constantly at odds with UNHCR officials. He feels they are too cautious, unprepared and unwilling to act when the situation was worsening by the day. Nevertheless, the UNHCR Emergency Unit engages Cuny to make substantial contributions to its pioneering Emergency Management Training Program. He becomes a strong advocate for helping refugees voluntarily return to their homes, in spite of the ongoing war in Ethiopia.
When the 1986 El Salvador earthquake left over 200,000 people homeless the United States Agency for International Development Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID OFDA) hires Cuny. He devises a unique ‘big-picture’ approach to recovery, unprecedented in the US Government’s approach to disaster recovery. It centered on the El Salvador government purchasing under-utilized land and building multi-family housing for disaster survivors who had been renters and squatters, a population usually overlooked by external aid organizations.
In 1986, Cuny also leads an inter-agency assessment of food needs inside Ethiopia that included the typical review of backup supplies and food availability. However, he extends the assessment to examine dependency problems, longer-term approaches to promoting dignified livelihoods and alternative food distribution methods that will then lead to a completely different strategy for livelihoods support.
Cuny’s is involved in an ongoing innovative venture in which large quantities of cash are taken across the border from North Sudan into Ethiopia to improve the purchasing power of the famine victims in Tigray and Eritrea.
1987 – 1992
Cuny and Intertect are called by the State Department’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to lead assessment missions to several parts of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) like Mongolia, Georgia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya, and they are instrumental in developing the policies and approaches that the US Government later employed in assisting the states affected by the breakup. This experience in Russia is Cuny’s introduction to the region and it contributes to his interest and subsequent involvement in the region.
As part of the US Government’s team planning to support the reconstruction of Kuwait after the first Gulf War, Cuny is on the ground in Kuwait City, and alerts the team to the impending risk to a half million Palestinian workers stranded there. Some returning Kuwaitis begin retribution against the Palestinians for allegedly favoring Iraq in the war. Cuny developed a successful approach that protected the Palestinians.
After the Gulf War, Cuny is brought in to advise the US State Department and the military on how to manage refugees fleeing south out of Iraq, as well as the emergency created by hundreds of thousands of Kurds stranded on the mountainous border between Iraq and Turkey. Intertect deploys two teams – one in southern Iraq and one in northern Iraq.
In Kurdistan, rather than trying to support the massive population in such an unsustainable environment, Cuny proposes setting up safe zones in Northern Iraq and convinces the Kurds to return to the communities they had abandoned. Cuny’s strategy was adopted by the US government as Operation Provide Comfort. It worked, resolving an otherwise intractable problem.
1992 – 1993
In response to a developing famine in 1992, Cuny goes to Somalia to help the US government set up a food supply program. Fresh from the success of Operation Provide Comfort, Fred becomes increasingly supportive of the novel idea of using military assets to support aid distribution and develops a set of recommendations for military involvement. Ultimately Fred is left out of planning for integrated Somalia programming. Assistance programming and US Military intervention (starting in December 1992) is largely unsuccessful, troops are withdrawn in, and humanitarian assistance returns to the status quo of 1991, while the civil war continues.
Cuny and Intertect advise on assistance to displaced from the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. The team continues to assist in program development during the Sir Lanka Civil war, on recovery from Cyclones in the Maldives archipelago, and advise UNDP and the Government of Bangladesh on physical protection and management solutions to frequent cyclones in the in the Meghna delta-Bay of Bengal interface.
1992 – 1994
Cuny is asked to be senior advisor to the US Government’s response to needs in the Newly Independent States following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Fred and Intertect are called by the State Department’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to lead assessment missions to several parts of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and client states like Mongolia, Georgia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya, as well of many part of Russia. Intertect becomes instrumental in developing the policies and approaches that the US Government later employed in assisting the states affected by the breakup. This experience in Russia is Cuny’s introduction to the region and it contributes to his interest and subsequent involvement in the region.
1993 – 1996
Cuny meets George Soros, a Hungarian refugee, financier and philanthropist. Soros and Cuny agree on an approach to support the encircled city of Sarajevo during the siege by Serbian forces who were committing ethnic cleansing in the surrounding countryside. Intertect deploys teams in Sarajevo continuously from 1993-1996. Working with NGOs in Sarajevo, the Intertect teams design and implement programs for food, water and heat assistance. The Soros organizations fund Intertect’s design and construction of a massive water purification system that can be flown into Sarajevo on C-130 aircraft, and against all odds, the Intertect team gets the units into Sarajevo where they begin to supply the city with water.
Intertect teams also assist with other humanitarian issues in Croatia and elsewhere in Bosnia, innovating in new circumstances, including the airlift of relief supplies to Sarajevo.
Morton Abramowitz, as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Cuny, conceptualize the creation of a permanent organization whose mission is to assess the plight of threatened populations and to mobilize the political will necessary to ensure a meaningful response. The organization is named the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Cuny is destined to become its first director of foreign operations.
In November Cuny returns to northern Iraq for an assessment of the current situation. Involved in a traffic accident, Fred injures his leg and back.
George Soros asks Cuny to undertake an assessment in Chechnya to identify possible avenues of providing assistance to the besieged population. An assault by Russian troops launched on New Year’s Eve transformed the Chechen capital of Grozny into a slaughterhouse. Cuny arrives five weeks later to search for a way to reduce the conflict and provide assistance to the local population.
Cuny returns to the United States in March 1995 and goes public with a denouncement of Russia’s brutal campaign. He writes an article that appeared in late March in the New York Review of Books titled “Killing Chechnya” that is heavily critical of the Russian military operation.
March 31st, 1995
Cuny returns to his base of operations in Ingushetia and on March 31, 1995, he travels toward the deadliest region of Chechnya in a Russian ambulance with two Russian doctors and an interpreter. Cuny and his three colleagues are captured by unidentified Chechens.
By mid-April, an alarm is sent out over their missing status and searches are organized by the Open Society Institute, the US Embassy in Moscow, the FBI, the CIA, the Russian FSB (the former KGB) and the Chechen military. President Bill Clinton asks Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s then-prime minister, to assist with the search.
After several months of searching for Cuny, his son, Craig Cuny, and his brother, Chris Cuny, announce that they had received reports, believed to be reliable, that Cuny, the Russian interpreter and the two Russian doctors have all been executed near the village of Stary Atchkoi, a village controlled by the local Chechen intelligence chief.
The bodies of Fred Cuny, his interpreter and the two doctors have never been found.