Humanitarian Profile: Fred Cuny

Frederick C. Cuny (1944 – 1995) was an American disaster relief specialist who was active in many humanitarian projects around the world from 1969 until his forced disappearance in Chechnya in 1995.

Cuny originally hoped to become a fighter pilot, but he was unable to pass the language requirements, and could not go to Officers’ Candidate School. Instead, he studied engineering at Texas A&M University, specializing in problems in developing countries, and urban planning at the University of Houston, and became increasingly involved in causes such as the problems of local Mexican migrant workers.

Cuny became an accomplished civil engineer, but at some point he became dissatisfied and decided to become a disaster relief specialist who used his training in engineering to do humanitarian work.  His main goal was to institute a radical restructuring of the way the disaster relief system operated throughout the world.

In 1971 he founded the “Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp.”, a relief mission technical assistance and training company. This company became the major disaster relief agency, Interworks. He 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. 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

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, a local Chechen rebel counterintelligence commander. Their remains were never found.


“Famine, Conflict and Response: A Basic Guide” by Frederick C. Cuny (posthumously) and Richard B. Hill

PBS Frontline: The Lost American

“What Happened to Fred Cuny?” The New York Times, February 25, 1996.

“A Hero of Our Time” by William Shawcross.  The New York Review of Books, November 30, 1995.

University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822