BOOKS & THE CULTURE The Aggie Raoul Wallenberg Cowboy Relief From Biafra to Chechnya BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN “THE LOST AMERICAN.” Directed by Foster Wiley. Produced by Sherry Jones for Frontline. If Fred Cuny’s life were a Hollywood movie, it would star Tommy Lee Jones and be called 25 Years of Living Dangerously. Perhaps it has already been done, as The Grapes of Wrath, with Henry Fonda proclaiming: “I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” Cuny’s career as freelance humanitarian troubleshooter took him wherever famine, earthquake, and civil war left victims desperate for outside assistance. He surfaced for extended stints in Biafra, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia. But Cuny vanished two years ago, during a quixotic bid , to rescue civilians from the carnage in Chechnya. Cuny’s life is now a PBS movie, scheduled to be broadcast by the documentary series Frontline on Tuesday evening, October 14. Written and produced by Sherry Jones and directed by Foster Wiley, “The Lost American” begins on March 31, 1995, with Cuny’s disappearance into the miasma that is the Chechen conflict. Left behind in the hotel room he occupied during the final night he was seen alive is a copy of the John le Cane novel Our Game, the perfect metaphor for a life spent bluffing his way through porous borders. Attempting to explain the mystery of what happened to Cunywhat he was doing on those muddy, bloody roads so many miles from homethe film circles back to Texas, where a young college student dreamt of making his mark on the world as a Marine aviator. Interviews with people who knew and worked with Cuny and footage of the man himself trace his development into an icon of international relief, a professional Samaritan responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives. His book, Disasters and Development, was read as Scripture by those who made careers out of aid, relief, and reconstruction, and his physical presence mesmerized victims and fellow workers. Cuny operated independently, often overcoming or simply ignoring the opposition of governmentincluding Americanofficials. He seemed able to charm his way through any crisis, except the last one. Cuny was an Aggie Raoul Wallenberg, and he, too, was swallowed up by the maws of a brutal, lawless world. “Cuny was a take-charge Texan who spent his life chasing trouble,” announces narrator Will Lyman early in “The Lost American.” Lyman makes as much of the “WE COULD MEASURE DAY BY DAY WHETHER WE HAD MADE A DIFFERENCE. THIS REALLY WAS GOD’S WORK.” Texas connection as did the “relief cowboy” himself. A burly man from Dallas, Cuny strode into African refugee camps sporting Western boots and jeans, eager to assert his presence as a potent factor on the wild frontier. A solitary interloper from the Lone Star State \(once an autonomous reniceties, and the narrator calls Cuny, who cultivated the image of a benign bandito in order to bully his way around bureaucracies, a “Texas renegade.” When Cuny secretly constructs a filtration system to provide fresh water for the besieged population of Sarajevo, it is hidden inside a tunnel that the narrator, wowed by the myth of Texas, calls “twice the size of a Texas football field.” Football fields are no bigger in Austin than they are in Hartford. Though he claimed to be a native of the Lone Star State, the makers of “The Lost American” discovered that Cuny was in fact born in Connecticut. So was another adopted Texan, George Bush, whose foreign policies did not facilitate Cuny’s efforts. He did attend Texas A&M, as a Marine officer candidate, but his story about a medical discharge after a drunken cabbie ran him over was bogus; Cuny was expelled from officer training because repeated failure at foreign languages prevented timely graduation from A&M. But he did learn to fly, and it was while under contract to deliver supplies to warravaged Biafra that he first felt the exhilaration of being a privateer of benefaction. Mark Molloch Brown, currently vice president of the World Bank, recalls exuberant times in the field with Cuny: “When we saw our friends on the first leg of careers as lawyers or bankers or accountants, to just, you know, have the sand in one’s eyes and the, you know, be living under canvas and, you know, one’s office to be the back of a Land Rover, I mean, we loved it, and reveled in it. You know, we could measure day by day whether we had made a difference. This really was God’s work.” To pursue the work, Cuny established a company in Dallas he named Intertect. His first major project was Guatemala, where an earthquake left one million homeless. Disgusted by “junk aid” operations designed to serve the needs of donors more than victims \(What good did it do to dispatch electric frying pans to Guatemala poverty increased vulnerability to disaster. And he set about using reconstruction as an opportunity to reorganize a social system that deprived the poor of control over their own lives. His efforts provoked reaction from right-wing assassins. “We went too far,” Cuny regretted. “We were naive.” Cuny was more cunning in Ethiopia, where official policies exacerbated famine. He overcame the hostility of Addis Ababa and paralysis at the U.N. to repatriate frightened refugees. After the Gulf War, he managed to take charge of the effort to protect Kurds who had fled from Iraq to Turkey. In Somalia, he counseled military . discretion and opposed the massive intervention that became a Pentagon fiasco. Armed with $50 million from philanthropist George Soros, 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 24, 1997
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