A Humanitarian Hero


By Maryanne George
Oct 15, 2008

Although he met him only once in the bunkered waiting room of the Sarajevo airport during the Bosnian war in 1994, Fred Cuny (right) made a lasting impression on Robert Donia (’76). Cuny, a civil engineer and internationally acclaimed disaster relief specialist from Texas, was deeply immersed in the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia. Donia, a research associate with UM’s Center for Russian and East European Studies, was working as a wartime historian of Bosnia-Hercegovina and attempting to reestablish links with scholars in Sarajevo. 

Donia has since written numerous books about the area, but after his chance meeting he never lost an appreciation of Cuny’s tireless efforts to relieve suffering and civil rights abuses in Biafra, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia with practical acts such as building roads, improving drainage systems, and fortifying houses against earthquakes.

Cuny’s proudest achievement was the design and installation of a water filtration system in besieged Sarajevo, made of huge modules that could be unloaded from a United Nations transport plane in a matter of minutes to avoid Serbian sniper fire. He installed the filtration system in three protected locations, including a tunnel just above the river running through the city. The system produced filtered river water to the city’s 250,000 residents, helping to sustain them through some of the greatest deprivation and heaviest shelling of the war.

Unfortunately, Cuny was killed in 1995 in Chechnya while trying to arrange medical aid and the evacuation of 40,000 victims of the war between Russia and the Chechens.

“He was a big Texan with a soft voice, who was both an idealist and a pragmatist,” Donia says. “Of all the people I have encountered, Fred best embodied the values of human rights and international humanitarianism.”

To honor Cuny’s legacy, Donia and his wife, Jane Ritter, donated $2.5 million to establish the Fred Cuny Professorship in the History of Human Rights in LSA’s Department of History.

“Fred’s legacy brings to life the dangers and dilemmas faced by the human rights movement, and we hope his example will inspire others, as it has us, for generations to come,” Donia says. “He is an inspiration, whether someone is approaching the study of human rights from law, political science, or history.”

Reprinted from LSA Magazine