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The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny

The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny

by Scott Anderson

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A swashbuckling Texan, a teller of tall tales, a womanizer, and a renegade, Fred Cuny spent his life in countries rent by war, famine, and natural disasters, saving many thousands of lives through his innovative and sometimes controversial methods of relief work. Cuny earned his nickname "Master of Disaster" for his exploits in Kurdistan, Somalia, and


A swashbuckling Texan, a teller of tall tales, a womanizer, and a renegade, Fred Cuny spent his life in countries rent by war, famine, and natural disasters, saving many thousands of lives through his innovative and sometimes controversial methods of relief work. Cuny earned his nickname "Master of Disaster" for his exploits in Kurdistan, Somalia, and Bosnia. But when he arrived in the rogue Russian republic of Chechnya in the spring of 1995, raring to go and eager to put his ample funds from George Soros to good use, he found himself in the midst of an unimaginably savage war of independence, unlike any he had ever before encountered. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared in the war-rocked highlands, never to be seen again.

Who was Cuny really working for? Was he a CIA spy? Who killed him, and why? In search of the answers, Scott Anderson traveled to Chechnya on a hazardous journey that started as as a magazine assignment and ended as a personal mission. The result is a galvanizing adventure story, a chilling picture of "the  new world order," and a tour de force of literary journalism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the most thrilling stories I have ever read...This is not just an adventure story, but a mystery of the first order." —Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

"A mystery story, straight out of a plot from John LeCarré." —The New York Times Book Review

"Forget Mount Everest. Forget the perfect storm. For pure adrenaline, there's nothing like the war zone." —Time Out New York

"One of the most important books to be published since the fall of the Berlin Wall...A great, epic mystery of our day." —The New York Observer

The Barnes & Noble Review
"Eat all the food on your plate, because children in Cambodia are starving," our parents told us, and for most of us, eating our last bite of food is the most we have ever done to help those children. Fred Cuny, on the other hand, used his life to do all that was humanly possible. As the real-life protagonist of The Man Who Tried to Save the World, Fred Cuny makes a complicated hero. This book, Cuny's life story, chronicles the oddities, frailties, and accomplishments of this singular man and in the process tells the story of the politics amidst the horrors of war in Iraqi Kurdistan, Somalia, Bosnia, and particularly Chechnya. It takes us into "complex disasters" all over the world as if we too were there trying to help.

Scott Anderson tells the story of how Fred Cuny grew from a quiet boy with bad grades and a failed dream to join the Marines into a world-renowned expert in disaster relief with a proud step, a practical approach, and famous cowboy boots. Anderson quotes several of Cuny's diary entries that offer a glimpse of this young man's hunger for great things: "GOALS: 1. To sail a Chinese junk or sampan across the Pacific. 2. To win a major yachting event (as captain). 3. To spend a year sailing the rivers of Europe on a houseboat. 4. To achieve an ATR (?) type rating for: helicopter; four-engine aircraft; glider; jet; gyrocopter; crop-duster; balloon. 5. To visit every country on earth. 6. Learn to speak five languages other than English. 7. Cross Asia overland..." — and the lists go on and on. Amazingly, 22 years after he wrote them, Cuny hadcomeremarkably close to attaining many of his goals, and this in addition to having saved the lives of thousands with his down-to-earth problem-solving techniques.

Despite Cuny's remarkable heroism, this is not the flat and boring story of an angel. We find this man's life peppered with intriguing details — this curious hero was also a grandiose, egotistical liar and a self-proclaimed failure as a father and husband. Nor is the story straightforward. Cuny disappears into the hell of Chechnya, never to return, and the spying, double-crossing, and violence that are uncovered in the search to discover what truly happened to him are mind-boggling.

And that is where the depth of the book lies — in what Scott Anderson tells us about the worlds of human disaster and disaster relief and in what he shows of human carelessness and stubbornness in the face of tragedy. A renowned war correspondent, Anderson knows the terrain and knows his facts. He describes with clarity and precision the politics behind foreign-aid projects and offers viewpoints that feel forthright — in stark contrast to those offered in books by government officials, which sometimes reek of the need to cover people's backsides. He brings to life the men and women who wield the power in each of the war fronts he describes, and captures the sights, sounds, and feelings, nauseating in their truthfulness, of being there. Of Chechnya, "the scariest place on earth," he writes:

Others have likened the sound of an artillery bombardment to the sky being ripped apart. I don't know. What I can say is that after a time it no longer feels like a sound but like something animate. It travels through the ground, and you first feel the ache in your knees, then in your upper chest, and before long you start imagining that it is inside you and will not leave. I wonder if this is why people go mad during bombardments...the sense that the constant thrumming is inflicting violence from within.

He spares no detail in describing the war-ravaged lands that were the setting for Fred Cuny's life.

This book leaves you with a chilling imprint of what man-made disaster looks like from the outside. Yet there is a spark of warmth in that chill, the spark of Fred Cuny in his cowboy boots, one man who succeeded in saving thousands of innocents from some of the horrors of war.

Kate Montgomery

San Francisco Chronicle
Entirely worthy of its magnificent subject.
Richard Beeston
A mystery story straight out of a plot from a novel by John le Carre. —The New York Times Book Review
...[I]mpressively obsessive reportage...
Time Out New York
Forget Mount Everest. Forget the perfect storm. For pure adrenaline, there's nothing like the war zone. That's the turf of Scott Anderson...In terse and portentous prose, he is fully in his element.
Put your thrillers aside: One of the most gripping accounts of spycaft and gamesmanship in today's wars...can be found in veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson's nonfiction account of the life and disappearance of international relief worker Fred Cuny.
Library Journal
At the time of his 1995 disappearance in Chechnya's killing fields, Fred Cuny had attained an extraordinary reputation for providing disaster relief. His efforts had saved literally thousands of refugees in Central America, Kurdistan, and Bosnia, among other places. Where Cuny's advice was ignored (Somalia), the result was greater tragedy. Freelance journalist Anderson, author of the novel Triage (LJ 9/1/98), pieces together the testimony of the many who knew Cuny from the time of his Texas boyhood through his last chaotic days with a mobile trauma unit in Chechnya. Depicting the shifting venues of Cuny's work as a private consultant and sometime employee of the State Department and the Soros Foundation, Anderson helps us distinguish Cuny's "myth" from his remarkable life. In his personal quest to penetrate the "fog of intrigue" surrounding his subject, Anderson delivers a plausible explanation of Cuny's death and reveals the unique terrorism of Russia's Chechnyan war. As a biography, this book begs questions, but as a nonfiction mystery it is gripping. Recommended for public and most academic libraries.--Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ., Erie Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Carroll Bogert
Anderson's portrait of the swashbuckling relief worker with the heart of gold is not just a good read. It's become a very timely read as well.
USA Today
Bob Shacochis
Let me, if possible, be more emphatic about Mr. Anderson's achievement...Here at the end of the American Century, we cannot afford the next one to be the end of Pax Americana, as tattered as it is, and indifference to foreign policy issues during an age of globalization strikes me as a terminal form of decadence. The effect of Mr. Anderson's book is to counteract indifference.
The New York Observer
Kirkus Reviews
A masterful portrait of Fred Cuny, a renegade Texan who certainly deserved his nickname, "Master of Disaster." It's hard to name a major disaster in the last 20 years that didn't find Cuny at the helm of the rescue effort. Operation Provide Comfort, the joint civilian and military effort to save the Iraqi Kurds? Cuny was there and an organizational hero. Somalia? Cuny was there as well. Bosnia too, but that crisis turned his attention from providing relief to creating blueprints for solving man-made disasters, i.e., wars. That decision proved fatal. Cuny's demise came in Chechnya, where he mysteriously disappeared on a so-called relief mission. His body has never been found, despite an intense search by many, including those authorized by top US officials and billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Institute, which had hired Cuny on many occasions. At its best, the book reads like a Tom Clancy thriller, full of secret meetings, wrong leads, and political innuendo. Cuny's son is told by the Russians that his body, sans face, has been found. But how did they identify him? When the family finally gets the corpse, it's too short and the face turns out to have been obliterated by sulfuric acid. Why the body double? These are just a few of the many questions surrounding this larger-than-life man who dedicated himself to helping others and—not coincidentally, according to journalist and novelist Anderson (Triage, 1998)—to making a reputation for himself. Was Cuny a CIA operative? Was he killed by Chechan rebels after disinformation spread by Russian intelligence operatives claimed he was anti-Islam? Or was he killed, as Anderson posits, on the order of ChechanPresident Dudayev? Or something in between? We may never know, but this much is certainly obvious: Cuny was a man whose humanitarian impact cannot be denied and who will be missed. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

You have entered the wilderness of trees and mirrors. This is a story with no obvious answers because that's how it was set up, the way it's supposed to be. —Former U.S. intelligence officer on the search for Fred Cuny

Shortly after eleven o'clock on the morning of March 31, 1995, five people emerged from a building at the south end of the main square of Sleptsovskaya, a small town in the northern Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. Crossing to the tree-lined curb, they climbed aboard a battered gray ambulance and pulled away.

The two-story building they had just left housed a Russian government agency with a very long name: the Ministry of States of Emergency and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters—or "Emergency Situations" for short. There had been a number of "emergency situations" in the Russian Federation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the most pressing one in Ingushetia that spring of 1995 was the war in neighboring Chechnya. At the end of March the conflict between the Russian army and Chechen separatists was only fourteen weeks old, but already tens of thousands were dead, whole towns and cities flattened, and the tide of battle had moved steadily westward to lap at the Ingushetia frontier. In Sleptsovskaya, a dusty, dull town less than a mile from the border, the fighting was now so close that on some nights its windows rattled from the concussion of Russian artillery, certain breezes carrying the sounds of combat so distinctly—the tap-tap-tap of machine-gun fire, even the soft, metallic clank produced by a tank moving over uneven ground—that it seemed the war had reached its own streets.

But it was at night that most of the killing in Chechnya took place,and when the Russian-built UAZ ambulance left the main square thatsunlit morning all was quiet, as if Sleptsovskaya was still what it hadalways been: a sleepy agricultural town set amidst a beautiful and fertilevalley, its bare trees and fields awaiting the first stirrings ofspring.

The five people in the UAZ ambulance were bound for Chechnya, apparently planning to conduct a "needs assessment" tour of the war zone. In addition to the local driver, the party consisted of two Russian Red Cross doctors, an interpreter, and the leader of the mission, a fifty-year-old Texan named Frederick C. Cuny.

An already imposing figure at six foot three, made more so by his trademark hand-stitched cowboy boots with their two-inch heels, Fred bore a strong resemblance to the late actor Slim Pickens, a comparison accentuated by his somewhat paunchy frame and a soft North Texas drawl. While not strikingly handsome by traditional measure, there was about him an extraordinary sense of self-assuredness, an air of quiet authority and determination that most people found deeply charismatic; women, in particular, seemed to find him quite entrancing. With his close-cropped graying hair, habitual lopsided grin, and vaguely martial bearing, he gave the impression of an aging, slightly quirky ex-military man who was not taking very good care of himself, and he looked rather out of place for the wilds of the North Caucasus. Then again, Fred Cuny looked out of place in most of the forsaken spots he usually found himself in.

As founder and president of the Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corporation, Fred was one of the world's most accomplished disaster relief experts, both a pioneer and an iconoclast in the field of international humanitarian aid. Operating out of a threadbare office in Dallas, he and his Intertect consultants had spanned the globe over the past twenty-five years to battle the catastrophes wrought by both nature and man—earthquakes in Guatemala, cyclones in Madagascar, wars on four continents. A man of astounding energy and will, he had repeatedly achieved what others deemed impossible, before quickly moving on to the next impossible task. On the strength of such accomplishments, he had earned an assortment of grandiose nicknames: "the Lone Ranger of emergency assistance," "the Red Adair of humanitarian relief"—and one he was especially fond of, "the Master of Disaster."

Along the way, however, Fred had fueled a fair amount of both resentment and suspicion. In recent years, many of his colleagues in the disaster relief fraternity, a fraternity where at least the appearance of neutrality was carefully maintained, had grown alarmed by his outspoken partisanship in different war zones around the world, as well as by his unusually cozy relationship with the American military. By the mid-1990s an increasing number of those who encountered Fred Cuny in the field began to suspect he might actually be an American intelligence agent. It was speculation Fred did little to discourage.

He had first come to Chechnya seven weeks earlier, in February 1995, at the behest of billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros. Arriving amid the Russian army's "pacification" of the capital of Grozny—a scorched-earth campaign that was steadily reducing the city to rubble and killing hundreds of civilians each day—Fred had spent a week shuttling across the battle lines, meeting with both senior Chechen rebel commanders and Russian generals in an attempt to arrange a cease-fire, one long enough to evacuate the estimated 30,000 civilians still trapped in the city. In the end, the Russian high command vetoed his plan, and the shelling had resumed.

Professionally, that first brief sojourn onto the battlefield had been a bitter experience for Fred. In typical fashion, he had come to Chechnya with a number of bold ideas to salvage the place, but with the Russian military tightening their hold on the breakaway republic and openly contemptuous of any effort to ease civilian suffering, the "Master of Disaster" had been able to accomplish little. After laying the groundwork for a tiny emergency medical team that would operate out of Ingushetia, Fred had left the region, his far more ambitious goals indefinitely postponed.

But that trip had affected him in another, more personal way. Even for an eyewitness to some thirty conflicts over the previous quarter century, Fred had never seen a war to match the brutality or terrifying unpredictability of Chechnya. To friends and coworkers back in the United States, he called it "the scariest place I have ever been."

That reaction, however, simply served as a goad to greater action. Throughout March, Fred had waged a dogged—and increasingly public—campaign in the United States excoriating the Russian military for its brutal tactics in Chechnya. He had met with senior State Department officials in Washington, and testified before a congressional subcommittee. In early April a long article he had written in the same vein would appear in the New York Review of Books.

So prominent had Fred become on the topic of Chechnya that many of his colleagues worried that it made him a marked man in the eyes of the Russian military—and a dead man should he ever return to the region. Now he was back, having flown into the Sleptsovskaya airport on the afternoon of March 29.

Shortly after nine o'clock on that last morning of Friday, March 31, Fred called his assistant at the Soros office in Moscow, Elisabeth Socolow. Toward the end of the conversation he mentioned he was going into Chechnya later that morning on a quick "needs assessment" tour, but would return to neutral Ingushetia by evening or the next day at the latest.

Wary of the Russian telephones, Elisabeth did not press him for details on the trip, but she detected something strange in Fred's voice; usually jocular and engaging, his tone that morning was flat, somber. "Is everything okay?" she finally asked.

There was a pause. "Just think about me," Fred said softly, then hung up.

What People are Saying About This

Sebastian Junger
This is war at its most brutal, and war reporting at its finest. Scott Anderson's tour through Chechnya in search of a lost American humanitarian ranks as one of the most thrilling stories I've ever read. That Anderson made it out alive is incredible, but this is not just an adventure story, but a mystery of the first order.
Steven Pressfield
This is the kind of book I love: a can-of-worms odyssey by a journalist with balls of brass and a relentless determination to get to the truth. What starts out as a search for facts turns into a Conradesque epic, a journey into a real-life heart of darkness where every hall is mirrored, nothing is what it seems, and every truth uncovered leads to a deeper mystery. The Man Who Tried To Save The World has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster — and enigmatic Yank with military and spy connections, shadowy Russian spooks, mysterious women, bandits and brigands, Chechnyan warlords, even missing nukes — with this difference: it's all true. (Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire)
Darcy Frey
Scott Anderson's The Man Who Tried To Save The World is a taut thriller of wartime intrigue that also happens to be true. Through the story of Fred Cuny's disappearance, Anderson gives us the story of Chechnya, and he does so with a reporter's exactitude and a novelist's sense of the tragic and absurd. A powerful, many-layered book.
— (Darcy Frey, author of The Last Shot)

Meet the Author

SCOTT ANDERSON is a renowned war reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and other national publications. He is the author of the novels Triage and The 4 O'Clock Murders, and coauthor of War Zones with his brother, Jon Lee Anderson. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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