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Quake aid: Neither landslides nor Chinese troops stop this volunteer

Frank Dunne climbs hills and crosses streams to bring aid to remote villages in quake-hit Sichuan Province.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2008

Help: Frank Dunne treks across landslides to deliver quake aid.

Peter FOrd

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Long Zhu, China

Clambering over giant landslides in the middle of nowhere in Sichuan Province, carrying aid to quake victims, is not what Frank Dunne came to China to do.

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The beefy, middle-aged salesman from Virginia actually had an even more exotic plan – making apple jam in Tibet. But that was put on hold because Chinese authorities have not allowed Mr. Dunne to go home since the Tibetan uprising in March.

So in his new adventure, he's organizing, sometimes leading, "extreme teams" that the US charity "Heart to Heart" has been sending to more remote mountain villages, schlepping in aid on their backs when the roads are blocked.

His destination last Tuesday was Long Zhu, a scattering of houses across forested hillsides now scarred by rock slides, that he had visited 10 days earlier as the head of the first civilian relief team to reach the 800 inhabitants.

"If not for the earthquake," he says, "I would probably be somewhere else learning Chinese, which is what I ought to be doing. But this gives me a nice, noble reason not to study."

"The place captured my heart because it's just paradise," he explained, "except that at the moment nobody has a house to live in or a dry bed to sleep in."

Getting there would not be easy and might be dangerous. Dunne made the nine members of his team sign release forms and take a group ID photo "in case we get buried under a landslide" provoked by one of the numerous aftershocks that still rattle the region. The latest major aftershock, which struck Thursday, had a magnitude of 5.3.

The village's inaccessibility turned out to be only one of the problems. Trying to get a better grip on the multiplicity of aid efforts, which range from Chinese soldiers and citizen-volunteers to foreign medical teams and private nongovernmental organizations, Chinese officials have begun preventing unofficial distribution of goods not authorized by the government.

At the first police roadblock, at a highway tollbooth, Dunne was unflappable. He simply walked to the head of the line of backed-up cars with a folder of documents under his arm and approached a policeman politely. His three-vehicle convoy was waved through.

"Amazing what a file folder and a name tag will do," he said with a smile.

Determination and a four-wheel-drive

An hour or so later, after a jolting drive into the mountains past badly damaged villages dotted with makeshift tents, he adopted a more determined attitude. Pulled over by a soldier because of his foreign face, and risking getting separated from the two front cars in the convoy driven by Chinese, he made an executive decision.

He was unable to explain what he was doing (he should have taken those language classes), so he simply slammed his secondhand Isuzu jeep into reverse, turned hard, and roared up the road after his team. "We've got to catch up with the others," he called out in English. "If you want me, come chase me."

It turned out to be a fruitless gambit; a little farther on, the road was more securely blocked by more soldiers who were adamant that foreigners could go no farther.

Dunne knew another way in to Long Zhu though, and after a three-hour detour lurching into the mountains along dirt tracks through one flattened village after another, he reached the last obstacle before the road became completely impassable – a fast-flowing stream. Whooping with excitement he ploughed his four-wheel-drive through the water, climbed up the steep bank, and came to a halt at a house-sized boulder that completely blocked his path.

From there it would be a tough 30-minute climb up and down a hill and through two massive landslides that had piled huge rocks across the narrow valley.

As he unloaded the food, tents, personal hygiene products and medicine he had brought, and that he and fellow volunteers would carry on by hand, Dunne was thinking not only of the people who would receive it, but also of those who had given it and wanted to know where it had gone.