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Sunday, July 4, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What Happened To Fred Cuny? -- Fascinating Book Explores The Life, Disappearance Of The `Man Who Tried To Save The World'

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny" by Scott Anderson Doubleday, $24.95 -------------------------------

In March 1995, Fred Cuny, an international relief worker with more than 25 years of experience under his belt, visited war-torn Chechnya for the second time in three months. The first time he had called it "the most dangerous place on Earth." The second time he did not return.

Governments got involved. President Clinton mentioned his disappearance. Chechnya, the breakaway Russian republic, and Russia, at war with Chechnya over its desire for autonomy, predictably blamed one another. Three months later, as the manhunt was winding down, the New York Times Magazine hired Scott Anderson to write an article about the missing relief worker, but the answers Anderson got simply led to more questions.

Why had Cuny returned to Chechnya? Was he CIA? Why had he and his companions (five in all) driven to the town of Bamut, which was undergoing some of the most fierce shelling in human history? What role did the half-mad Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, play in all this? Were there nukes in Bamut? Was the Chechen Mafia involved? Why was the Russian government lying and stonewalling? Did the U.S. government know something it was not telling the Cuny family?

The complexity of the story has led to a fascinating, horrifying, eminently readable book. It is, in essence, a story told in three parts.

The first part is a biography of Cuny, and is optimistic about the human condition.

Cuny's resume was a roll call of the disaster sites (both natural and man-made) of our past quarter-century: Biafra, Bangladesh, Managua, Somalia, Sarajevo. He ran a disaster-relief company out of his native Texas and revolutionized the field.

He redesigned refugee camps away from a military barracks-style grid pattern and into smaller, more communal units. He kept in mind indigenous history. He was a great organizer with energy and optimism, and, though not handsome, he could charm women right out of their socks.

"For most people, life's disappointments have a way of tempering youthful dreams," Anderson writes, "For Fred Cuny, they appeared to have the opposite effect. With each setback - and there would be many over the years - his dreams had a way of growing simply more grand."

Just reading a list of Cuny's personal achievement goals, one gets a sense of life's grand possibilities: 1. To sail a Chinese junk or sampan across the Pacific . . . 5. To visit every country on

Earth . . . 9. Learn to speak five languages other than English . . .

The second part of the book is a brief history of the Chechnya-Russian conflict, and says horrifying things about the human condition. Chechnya was a place where your life could end on a whim, where madmen and incompetents ruled, where there was no "front," so to speak, and trading went on between rebel and occupying forces. One moment soldiers might ask you for your autograph simply because you were an American; the next, they might shoot you.

In keeping with international trends, the vast majority of casualties were civilians.

"Over the next thirty-six hours . . ." Anderson writes in one memorable paragraph, "the Russian troops ripped (the town of) Samashki apart, flamethrowering whole streets, dropping grenades into cellars where families hid, shooting down those who crossed their paths. One of their victims was a much-decorated war hero from World War II. To protect his home and family, the old man had put on his old Red Army uniform with its array of medals and ribbons, and sat on a chair outside his front gate as the Russians approached: instead of being spared, he was machine-gunned where he sat, his home then stripped bare by the looting soldiers."

Finally, "The Man Who Tried to Save the World" is a mystery, and Anderson is its detective. He describes the suspects, he withholds (briefly) information, he implies Cuny was stalked and that his companions may have been spies. He relays a steady stream of theories and excuses and rumors about what happened to Cuny in a place where, as one State Department official says, "everything was true, and everything was a lie." In the end, like Sam Spade himself, Anderson rips apart some of the official theories and draws his own possible conclusions.

Anderson is a magazine writer, and unfortunately many of his sections begin with an "opening paragraph," a device that works better with magazine articles than books. "His first image of Grozny was of burning," is typical.

Because Anderson could not interview Cuny, there are understandable holes in the biography: moments where the author builds up this or that relief mission and then describes it in very general, generic terms.

But Anderson has done something marvelous here. He has given us a portrait of an American Raoul Wallenberg (the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, and who also disappeared without explanation), even as he helps sort through the rubble of Somalias and Sarajevos, making each disaster distinct. Reading, one's quotidian annoyances recede to their proper place. One gets a larger sense of what is right and wrong with the world.

Erik Lundegaard writes regularly for The Seattle Times, Washington Law & Politics and The Grand Salami, a Seattle Mariners fan magazine.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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