Texto en Español
Fred Cuny was a disaster relief specialist who used his training in engineering to do humanitarian work. He worked in countries such as Biafra, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia. In March 1995, he disappeared in Chechnya and was never found. His life was featured on the PBS documentary program Frontline.
Most of the information contained herein is drawn from the Frontline documentary on Fred Cuny, the Cuny section of the PBS web site, and Professional Responsibility: Focusing on the Exemplary by Michael S. Pritchard of Western Michigan University.
You can find more information on these materials and other Cuny-related sources in sections 9 and 10.
In Sarajevo, civilians were being killed as a part of the
Serbians' ethnic cleansing program. Because Bosnia offered no
strategic interest to the U.S., the U.S. did not want to
intervene. But billionaire philanthropist George Soros hired
Fred Cuny for $50 million to do relief work.
One of the biggest problems facing Sarajevo was the lack
of clean water. The Serbs had severed all of the working
water lines leading into Sarajevo.There was a small supply of
clean water controlled by the Bosnian government, but it
wasn't enough to satisfy everyone's needs. And people were
shot down by snipers while waiting in long water lines with
What could Cuny possibly do to alleviate this situation?
Seemingly, there was no way to overcome the considerable
political obstacles that were present. Cuny could always try
to become politically involved, but his lack of success in
the Somalia situation must have been fresh in his mind. The
course Cuny eventually chose was more audacious than normal,
even for him.
Cuny located a series of old cisterns and brought water
filters in from Texas. Since the Serbs controlled the airport
in Sarajevo, Cuny had to be quite daring. He brought the
boxcar-sized water filters and then hid the water filter
system in an unused highway tunnel.
The local Bosnian officials refused to allow the water
system to operate, and Cuny again saw how relief work was
connected to politics and economics. If the Bosnian officials
allowed Cuny's water filtration and distribution system to
operate, the Bosnian government would no longer control the
precious water supply. And that precious water supply was a
significant source of income for the Bosnian government.
Government officials claimed that Cuny's water was not being
filtered properly. But Cuny maintained that the water
conformed to international emergency water treatment
standards. And he complained that the Sarajevo authorities
were not able to modify their procedures to meet emergency
After several months, Cuny's water system was finally
approved. In the summer of 1995, the mayor of Sarajevo
declared that "Fred's water" had kept Sarajevo alive. But by
then, Cuny had already disappeared in Chechnya.