search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed house in
the small town of Budgran, Pakistan.
Miller *92, standing at top center, helps distribute tents
to earthquake victims in Pakistan.
January 25, 2006:
prepared for the devastation’ Jonathan Mitchell *92 provides shelter to Pakistani
Jonathan Miller *92 of Cary, N.C., describes his 10 days of
earthquake relief efforts in Pakistan as “the most intense
and fulfilling week of my life.” Mitchell, who previously
had managed programs in Pakistan, worked with Bach Christian Hospital,
a mission hospital, to provide shelter to individuals in hard-hit
I arrived in the earthquake zone on Saturday, Oct. 29, and left
Sunday morning to check on the condition of some of our friends
who live far up one of the heavily affected valleys. We passed
through the town of Balakot, whose images have dominated the news.
Despite having seen these pictures and hearing of the destruction,
I was not prepared for the devastation. Not only the homes of our
friends, but the bazaars, mosques, government offices, hotels, hospitals,
gas stations, and power pylons were flattened. The four-story Park
Hotel wasn’t even a pile of rubble; it had fallen into the
As we drove out of town up the river, there was a steady stream
of people evacuating on foot. They carried little, having come many
miles down countless steep descents and treacherous rockfalls. I
don’t think any of them would have been prepared for the scene
awaiting them in Balakot, where they were expecting shelter. Our
destination was Budgran, a small settlement up at about 7,500 feet
above the town of Kawai. We had heard of many deaths in the settlement,
and we knew that they would be among the last to receive any assistance
given the remoteness of their village.
We arrived at Budgran shortly before nightfall. We walked past
the 10 fresh graves before arriving at the “home” of
Ashraf. I hadn’t seen him in more than 15 years, but he welcomed
me with a whoop and a big hug. There were 10 minutes of exchanging
greetings and reminiscing before we came to the topic of the earthquake.
He had lost his wife, two children, and his brother Aslam. His brother
Akram’s arm was badly broken; he was in Islamabad for treatment.
And Ashraf’s own foot was broken. Along with that, he lost
about a third of the animals on which his family’s livelihood
depends. And, yes, winter was coming, and with it maybe 12 feet
It was getting dark, and I needed to identify a helipad in order
to phone in the coordinates. The plan was for an army helicopter
to deliver 20 tents as temporary shelter. I walked up above the
village and found a perfect site. I repeated the coordinates several
times on the satellite phone, then left to break the fast with Ashraf
and his family. I had brought some Power Bars for supper, but they
wouldn’t hear of it. Knowing their desperate situation, I
was so uncomfortable accepting their offer, but I also knew how
wounded they would feel if I refused. They fed us rice with lentils
and loads of smoky tea, which beats an energy bar any day.
As we sat there beside the fire with the high ridges around us
fading into the night, I marveled at the resilience of these people.
I heard several children singing, the women were chattering among
themselves, and we men were cracking jokes and telling stories.
In the dark, you couldn’t tell that there had been such a
tragedy just days before. But then the talk would turn to the future,
and there would be silence. The future looked pretty grim. Winter
was coming, and they had no shelter. If they moved down, there would
be no provision for their animals. Their animals are their livelihood.
Talk moved to shelter designs and what would be needed, and how
that could be procured and carried up so far. They asked me what
they should do, but how do I know? I couldn’t survive up there.
The next day the helicopter crew didn’t like our coordinates
(too high), and they didn’t want to land where there were
no troops to control a crowd. All my sweet-talking made no difference.
By 3 p.m. the tents were on a helicopter, but they were going to
drop them in Kawai, deep in the valley below. The able-bodied
men headed down to begin hauling them up, unwieldy 70-pound loads
with long poles. One by one, the tents disappeared as the men carried
them off into the dusk, leaving 13 people who had come down for
whom we had no more tents. I gave each a chit to pick one up at
noon the following day where the road ends.
It wasn’t until later that I was struck by something.
As I had walked through Kawai to secure the tents, it was dusk and
people were preparing to break the Ramazan [known as Ramadan in
other countries] fast. Between the rubble of their homes and
the graves of family members, survivors had lit small fires to cook
from the remains of their winter stores. As I passed by, each family
not only invited me, they insisted that I join them. I had always
admired the hospitality of Pakistanis, but this was beyond admiration. These
people had lost everything, and their very survival was in question. Were
the roles reversed, I would be thinking of what to feed my children
next week, not of the needs of a stranger passing by. It made
my heart glow to have witnessed such generosity, and I was struck
again how each culture has unique strengths.
I realize that in volunteering in the earthquake relief effort,
I have received much more than I have been able to give. And
those I was able to help probably feel the same way, perceiving
the balance to be in their favor. I guess this is what economists
think of as Pareto efficiency, as any Woody Woo will tell you.
Jonathan Miller *92 works for the Research Triangle Institute
as a senior education scientist, managing programs around the world
that deal with education policy and finance. His parents were missionaries
in Pakistan when he was a child. After he completed his MPA in 1992,
he began a doctoral program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
He took his family in 1994 to northern Pakistan to manage the education
portfolio of the Aga Khan Development Network. In 2003, he
joined USAID as senior education officer for Pakistan, where he
worked for a year before returning to the United States.