On November 7, 2013 when international typhoon Haiyan hit the Central Philippine provinces of Samar and Leyte islands, unleashing havoc and killing people, international photojournalist Alex Baluyut and his wife Precious Leano were in the comfort of their home. As they saw the devastation unfold on TV broadcasts with reports of deaths and the helplessness of survivors, the couple was stirred into action.
“Super typhoon Haiyan prompted us to act although the idea of putting up a mobile kitchen was in my mind months before; a kitchen that can cook for survivors of any emergency, natural or manmade,” says Alex, 64, a veteran and multi-awarded Philippine photojournalist, who was named by Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA) as one of Asia’s most influential photographers.
“There was no road access to the affected areas and no flights to Tacloban, Leyte’s capital city,” says Precious. “Alex and I paced our cramped living room. Reports of deaths, in thousands, came in. Whole families were killed, swept to the sea, or drowned in the flooding. How can we just watch all these people die? Homeless survivors were on the streets. Alex asked, ‘Can we cook for them? I said- Yes, we can.’”
With Alex’s mass media contacts and Precious’ background in cultural work and organizing skills, the couple understood the logistics of moving people and equipment into difficult situations. On the night of November 15, armed with borrowed kitchen equipment, donated food ingredients, and accompanied by artist friends, the couple with a volunteer driver and assistant drove in a borrowed car to Villamor Air Base, a key military airbase in Manila which served as a transport centre for relief goods and volunteers.
“Between us we have 3,000 pesos. At Villamor, we were met by Alex's photography students, and a couple of my friends in theater. That first night in Villamor was our founding day. We named our group Art Relief Mobile Kitchen (ARMK). It grew from lugaw (rice porridge) and coffee to a full-service kitchen that served hot comfort food round the clock for 22 days. We fed some 700 survivors who were flown in every two hours, hundreds of volunteers and airbase personnel,” recounts Precious. In the same week, Alex and artist volunteers brought nearly 10.2 tonnes of food and equipment to Tacloban, transported by the army’s C-130 plane. At Tacloban’s Tigbao Parish Church the team served three meals a day, and cooked for long lines of evacuees. Donations came from students, private businesses, churches, and charity groups. Haiyan’s devastation became clear only in the following days with the death toll reaching around 6,300 people.
For the Baluyuts, the mobile kitchen is no longer a one-time relief work, but a project that would shape their lives. Regardless of race, religion, or political affiliations, ARMK observes impartiality when providing food aid. Food projects are conducted while respecting the cultural values of beneficiaries, and volunteers provide hot comfort food that they will serve in their own homes.
Alex underscores the crucial role of the community: “ARMK organizes communities as a source of volunteers and for local coordination. We engage with local government units, agencies, non-government organizations, schools and private individuals” he says,
After Haiyan, ARMK created a network of “locals” or community kitchens and a list of volunteers in strategic areas all over the Philippines. Two other natural calamities have further tested the group with the 2018 Mayon Volcano eruption in Bicol province, and the recent earthquake early this year in Digos and Matanao in Davao del Sur that triggered thousands of evacuees. In total the ARMK has been to almost 50 missions in the country, including its support to evacuees of the Marawi Siege, a mission which was extended for two months.
With their two sons, Dylan, 15, and Rickee, 17, the couple finds support from friends who would mind the Baluyot household whenever they travel to far-flung areas. “Even at home we always have students staying over, those who have nowhere to go on a weekend and no money to buy food. The boys know the nature of our work- that we feed those who are hungry and to share what we have. Rickee himself knows his way in the kitchen and prepares food for his friends,” Precious adds.
What prods them to pursue their goals despite the challenges of deeply entrenched social conditions? Alex remains optimistic: “National and local politics are rooted in cronyism and corruption. I believe that it is time for my generation to get more involved in changing the systems from within by making a concerted effort to run for local government offices. I have trust that the people have matured to elect honest individuals into office.”
Precious recalls: “As a young university student during the 1980s, everyone around me clamored for social revolution amidst the dictatorship. A friend asked, Do you believe in the armed revolution? I couldn’t answer. Life is sacred. To kill someone didn't hold well with me. I couldn't explain it then. I just felt it.”
With more than 50 food relief missions carried out from the Philippines’ most northernmost village in Batanes, to the deep south in Patikul, Sulu Islands, and with nearly a million meals served over seven years, the ARKM draws strength from its volunteers. Following the severe government-imposed quarantine lockdown last March, ARMK opened five kitchens in the provinces of Laguna and Batangas, and a Redemptorist church in Metro Manila. In Mindanao, kitchen teams were set up in Davao and Surigao del Sur provinces. Each kitchen can cook 1,000 meals at any given time.
“Humanitarian emergency food aid not only feeds people with hot meals but more importantly it lifts their morale,” says Alex, to which Precious adds: “There is power in compassion. We can survive COVID-19 if we take care of each other. If the government is slow or corrupt, we will do our work. What we do influences policy-making. The good people in the government talk to us and try their best. I am more hopeful about the next generation. I’ve seen volunteers who will in a generation’s time take on leadership positions and policy-making. I’m sure they will lead with integrity.”
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