THE MAN WHO TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD

The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Fred Cuny

By Scott Anderson

Doubleday. 374 pp. $24.95

By Patrick Anderson, whose most recent book is "Electing Jimmy Carter," a memoir of the 1976 presidential campaign.

Early in April 1995, an American disaster-relief expert named Fred Cuny disappeared, along with three companions, in a godforsaken part of Chechnya where the Russian army was waging bitter war against the native population. Although Cuny was not well known to the public at large, he was a legendary figure in the world of international disaster relief, and the New York Times Magazine asked reporter and novelist Scott Anderson to investigate. What Anderson thought would be a three-week magazine assignment evolved into a three-year quest that now has produced this gripping story of the life and death of an American hero.

Cuny was a larger-than-life Texan whose specialty was striding into scenes of disaster and bringing order out of chaos. In scores of trouble spots, clad in jeans and cowboy boots, he organized refugee camps, unsnarled supply lines, browbeat military commanders into truces, and in the process was credited with saving many thousands of lives. He was a visionary and an American original, and by the time he disappeared his family and friends had the support of the highest levels of the U.S. government, starting with President Clinton, as they struggled to solve the mystery of his final days.

Cuny was born in New Haven, Conn., but his family moved to Dallas when he was 8, and Texas was his spiritual home. His boyhood dream of being a Marine pilot ended when he flunked out of Texas A&M, but by age 23 he was running an anti-poverty program in a Hispanic community and learning that he had a knack for getting things done.

Drawn to overseas adventures, he wangled a job with a British relief agency, Oxfam, when floods and civil war devastated East Pakistan in 1970, and he soon concluded that international relief programs were grossly mismanaged and in urgent need of his assistance. Back in Texas he founded his own consulting firm, grandly called International Technical Consultants, and waited for the next disaster to strike.

Business was scarce at first, but in 1972 Oxfam hired him to help after an earthquake in Nicaragua, where he gained attention by insisting that traditional "grid"-style refugee camps should be replaced by more user-friendly "cluster" camps. Cuny proceeded to write his Relief Operations Guidebook, a virtual encyclopedia of disaster relief, and in 1976 he was back in Central America to help survivors of an earthquake in Guatemala.

By then his legend was growing. In a world of massive relief organizations, he was the lone cowboy, striding in at high noon to set things right. Despite his criticisms, he began to win contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and United Nations relief agencies. Increasingly he was drawn not to natural disasters but to the even more dangerous challenge of man-made disasters such as civil wars. In 1991, working with a USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team, Cuny helped save the lives of thousands of Kurdish refugees by persuading U.S. military officials to establish a security zone for them in northern Iraq.

Cuny hoped the incoming Clinton administration would make him its disaster-relief czar. That didn't happen; instead he was soon in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, where he added to his legend by strolling unconcerned through sniper fire and by bringing a new water system to the besieged city in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

By 1995 Cuny was 50, too old to be rushing off to war zones, but some fatal attraction led him to the hell of Chechnya. ("To imagine this war and the way it was fought," Anderson writes, "it might be easiest first to forget what you know about war.") Cuny went to Chechnya on the payroll of billionaire George Soros, saw just how ugly the conflict was, and then, over the protests of friends, went back. Why? The best guess is that he thought he could do some good--and that he had begun to believe in the myth of his own invincibility.

Anderson's account of the war in Chechnya, Cuny's disappearance and the prolonged, multinational search for him takes up the second half of the book and is quite brilliant, as is his reporting, which involved retracing Cuny's footsteps at great risk. The search for Cuny is a real-life thriller filled with shady characters, conspiracy theories, false leads and endless duplicity. The sad truth is that outsiders who entered the war zone, be they relief workers or journalists, were suspected of being spies, and both the Russians and the Chechnyans were quite capable of gunning them down and then covering up. The full story of Cuny's death may never be known, although Anderson offers a theory that makes as much sense as any.

George Orwell, in his essay on Gandhi, noted that saints should be considered guilty until proved innocent. Fred Cuny was no saint, but Scott Anderson makes a convincing case that he was a hero for our time, a soldier of peace in an age of war, who richly deserves the posthumous recognition that this exceptional biography provides.

CAPTION: Fred Cuny vanished in Chechnya in 1995.