To while away an hour chatting with Omar Havana is a captivating experience. A lesson in the realities of war and revolution and the perils of modern media – and that’s before you even look at his pictures.
As a photojournalist, Spaniard Havana has shot refugees in Libya, revolutionaries in Bangkok, demonstrators in Cairo and the deprived in Cambodia. With a passion for human rights and a new-found addiction to conflict reportage, Omar has come back to Siem Reap – the place he called home for over three years – for a bit of peace and quiet.
“When you go to cover a conflict, you put photography to the limit, you have a second to think, you have a second to shoot. I wanted the experience, ” he explains. “For one year it was a little bit crazy… then for four months I stayed in my house just thinking, trying to forget what I had to forget and trying to remember what I had to remember. So for me it’s time to relax somewhere a little bit quiet.”
Having first arrived in Cambodia in 2005, Omar says the country instantly enchanted him and he eventually moved here in 2008. Over the following two years he gathered notoriety for his coverage of families working and living on the rubbish dump outside of town.
“I’ll tell you a strange sentence, it’s the happiest place I’ve ever been,” he says. “I had a girl from Sky News with me once, and she started to cry. The children were asking, ‘Why is she crying?’ That’s why I’m happy there. Because they were in the worst situation that I ever saw, but they were happy.”
During his time in Siem Reap, Havana covered the conflict in Preah Vihear and the Red Shirt Revolution in Bangkok. The latter he describes as the most frightening conflict he’s encountered.
“For me at least, the most difficult situation is when you have snipers. You don’t know when or where they’ll shoot. The last bullet that you see is the bullet that will kill you, and Thailand was full of snipers.”
But the dispute at Preah Vihear was more poignant. “It was strange. I was up there eight or nine months earlier and it was beautiful, there were trees everywhere. This time, everything was barren, there were bomb fragments absolutely everywhere, it was sad.”
Now, having returned to Cambodia. Omar is once again advocating for those living on the rubbish site. He says in his time away, the rubbish has doubled in size and conditions have worsened considerably. Combustible refuse causes frequent toxic fires, releasing poisonous plumes in which families live, work and play.
“Before it was a small rubbish dump, it was cleaner, less dangerous, there was still room to play. The worst problem now is the smoke and the toxins. They have to go deeper and deeper inside to build their houses.”
After shooting for ten minutes Havana says he needs to walk away from the smoke, while children as young as two are working on the site for hours at a time.
Havana had secured funding for, and installed, water pumps during his stint here. Now he says, the wells, 30 metres deep, have become contaminated by the increasing volume of waste.
Despite garnering the attention of NGOs in past coverage, Havana says many simply want to take the people off the land. But he says it’s more important to listen to their needs.
“Many don’t see what the people need, what they want, not what you want to give. We need NGOs there, not to get the people to leave, they don’t want to, but to improve the situation inside the dump, that is the priority.”
Omar says he is planning to set up an exhibition here in town to raise money and awareness for the people on the dump. “To explain the situation, to fundraise some money, whether it’s just to give them masks, even if it improves their lives just one per cent, that’s one per cent.”
As for help from outside, Omar says it’s very difficult as a journalist to get Cambodian stories into world news. “I always say, if Cambodia had petrol, we would be in the front page of every newspaper.”
Omar is vocal on his views of mainstream media, criticising many companies for prioritising advertisers over news.
“Journalism was finished the day the media went into the stock exchange. Most of the newspapers, not all, just care about money.” he says, “You can send them fantastic stories, and they don’t want it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Byrne at [email protected]