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Lone Ranger of Relief Aid Feared Slain in Chechnya : Disappearance: Hip-shooting humanitarian worker Fred Cuny may have run out of luck in a lawless land.

August 18, 1995|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — In times of disaster, few humanitarian relief workers have stood taller than Frederick C. Cuny, even without his Size 12 cowboy boots on.

For three decades, he has traversed the most troubled corners of the globe, dodging bullets, risking disease and bluffing dictators to aid the victims of floods, famines, earthquakes and civil wars. Whether in Bosnia or Guatemala, Beirut or Somalia, he has succeeded with equal doses of pragmatism and audacity, sort of a Texas-style melding of Jimmy Carter and Indiana Jones.

But the man who would save the world may have fallen victim to the very destruction he sought to avert.

On Thursday, four months after Cuny disappeared in the hellfire of Chechnya, his family said that all evidence points to a coldblooded execution. In a chilling twist worthy of a spy novel, they alleged that both Russian authorities and Chechen rebels may have had a hand in the 50-year-old maverick's demise.

Last seen with a translator and two doctors in a Red Cross ambulance packed with medicine, Cuny had become the focus of an international search unusual for a private citizen. President Clinton vowed to investigate Cuny's disappearance, while Boris N. Yeltsin and breakaway Chechen leader Dzhokar M. Dudayev pledged to help.

But speaking in Moscow, where they have been conducting a search of their own, Cuny's brother and son accused Russian intelligence agents of spreading false rumors that Cuny was anti-Islamic and a spy--presumably in retaliation for his sharp criticism of the crackdown in Chechnya. They further charged that Chechen rebels, swayed by the disinformation, took Cuny and his companions hostage, killed all four, then hid the remains.

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"I would feel better with a bone in my hand, but I think the information we have is sufficient to call off the search," said Cuny's 28-year-old son, Craig, declining to reveal any evidence to support his allegations. Russian authorities denied the charge, and U.S. officials conceded they simply do not know.

It was a grim denouement to months of fretful speculation about Cuny, who is often described as the Red Adair of disaster relief, referring to the globe-trotting oil-blaze fighter.

The MacArthur Foundation recently awarded Cuny a $305,000 "genius grant" in absentia, citing his ability to "heroically bring order out of crisis and chaos." But even that news was bittersweet: The money can be collected only by Cuny, not his family or friends, who need the funds if they are to continue hunting for his body.

"I knew Fred was taking risks," said his brother, Christopher, shortly before heading off to Russia last week. "But I always felt he was savvy and experienced enough to negotiate his way out of any trouble."

Without him, there is a huge void at Cuny's Dallas-based firm, Intertect, which stands for international architects--a name inspired by his dream of literally redesigning a better world. The for-profit company averages about $500,000 in annual revenues, most of it from government agencies and charitable organizations seeking Cuny's shrewd on-site recommendations. But his calendar, usually punctuated by at least 10 months of overseas travel, now hangs eerily vacant on an Intertect wall.

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"One would have to say that he saved the lives of many, many thousands of people in many, many places," said Aryeh Neier, president of the New York-based Soros Foundation, which had hired Cuny to help develop several relief projects in Chechnya. "There's other quite wonderful people out there who do superb work, but I can't imagine anyone who can fill his shoes."

They were big shoes--and not just because Cuny relished his larger-than-life image. Complex and sometimes misunderstood, he combined softhearted compassion with hard-nosed analysis, risk-taking flash with nuts-and-bolts expertise.

On the surface, he could be a swashbuckling self-promoter and fanciful raconteur. There was the time in India when he butted heads with Mother Teresa, telling the Nobel Peace Prize laureate that her plan to build concrete housing was wrong for Calcutta's muddy soil. Or the time in Zagreb when he tried to disarm Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic by poking fun at the accused war criminal's showy, perpendicular cap.

With an imposing 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame, Cuny would often play the role of the "stride-in, take-charge, fearless Texan . . . sort of a 'Fred Cuny's in town' kind of thing," said his colleague Rick Hill, now the acting director of Intertect. In Sri Lanka, Cuny once bluffed rebel troops out of commandeering his car by threatening retaliation from U.S. armed forces. In another country, left nameless, he once hastily drafted an official-looking manual, full of supposed international regulations, that convinced local leaders not to recklessly move a refugee camp.

"It's no place for virgins," Cuny said of his work in a 1985 Texas Monthly profile. A gag business card, still pinned above his desk, trumpets his versatility: "Fate tempted. Bars emptied. Tigers tamed."

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