Before visiting Laos, we were unaware that the country was subjected to one of the most relentless aerial bombing campaigns in the history of mankind – the U.S. dropped some two million tonnes of ordnance on the nation during 580,000 bombing missions between 1964 and 1973. A lot of these bombs didn’t explode, and over 40 years later they are still killing and maiming innocent people. We visited COPE – an organisation trying to make things right.
Sitting calmly on the outskirts of Vientiane is the COPE Visitors Centre. It is an unassuming building; a converted warehouse-come museum, containing moving exhibitions, documentaries and a comprehensive history of Laos’ tragic past.
COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise and it is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. Their mission, put simply, is to help people with mobility-related disabilities move on by supporting access to physical rehabilitation services.
The enterprise helps individuals from all over the country, regardless of age or income. Their services are available to individuals experiencing a range of circumstances, but roughly 30% of their patients who are provided with care and prostheses are UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) survivors.
Many visitors to the centre (including us) were surprised to learn that Laos was one of the most bombed nations during the Vietnam War, and unfortunately up to 30% of the bombs dropped did not explode. UXOs are explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, or launched, and still pose a risk of exploding. The effect of these buried, unexploded bombs in Laos has been, and continues to be devastating.
An estimated 270 millionsub-munitions (‘bombies’) from cluster bombs were dropped over Laos between 1964 and 1973 – equivalent to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the world. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this period than during the entire Second World War.
These bombings were part of the U.S. “Secret War” which aimed to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao. It is also understood that a large number of bombs were initially intended for Vietnam, though for whatever reason were not released, so were dropped in Laos as a precautionary measure (as attempting to land a plane with unexploded ordinance inside was considered too dangerous). This not-so-secret war destroyed countless villages, displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians, and is also estimated to have killed as many as 30,000 people during this nine-year period.
What is just as devastating is that the effects of these bombings have continued to haunt the country over the following decades. Of 270 million cluster bombs dropped on the Laos during the Vietnam War it is estimated that up to 80 million failed to detonate. These bombs have injured or killed over 20,000 people since the war ended, and are still claiming lives today.
In addition to the injuries and fatalities, the bombings have had a detrimental effect on agriculture. For those with land where UXO’s may be present, locals are resistant to plough deeply enough to get a good quality crop, and in many cases prime agricultural land is simply abandoned due to contamination by UXO.
The COPE visitor centre is full of stories that can be seen, heard and read on the walls. Some are inspiring, many are devastating, the most heartbreaking (and common) involve children.
In a country where raw metal material is scarce, locals make do with what they can, and it is not uncommon to see bomb shells remade into household items such as plant pots, spoons, bowls, fences and even boats. Growing up surrounded with items such as these, coupled with a lack of available education, means that children in rural areas are at an even greater risk; as many as 40% of UXO fatalities are children.
The enormous task of removing the bombs is still ongoing and requires the time and dedication of many passionate individuals. Every day throughout Laos 3000 men and women are conducting survey and clearance work, locating and destroying hundreds of cluster munitions and other explosive remnants. One of the organisations working in Laos is MAG, who since 1994 have cleared more than 58,000,000 square metres of land and destroyed more than 211,000 items of UXO.
Perhaps expectedly, the clearance of the bombs is primarily funded by the USA. During a visit to Laos in 2016, Barack Obama announced that the States would double its funding to spend $90 million over the following three years to clear unexploded bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. This, combined with funding from other nations, charities and generous individuals supports the efforts to make Laos safe again.
The COPE visitors centre itself is located on the grounds of the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation (CMR). The two organisations work closely with one another in the Laos capital of Vientiane, and four additional Provincial Rehabilitation Centres around Laos.
In addition to the treatment and services at the rehabilitation centres, COPE also provides health promotion and education to the public and brings much needed prosthetic and orthotic health services to communities in rural and remote areas through their Mobile Clinic programme.
Financial support such as travel, accommodation and living expenses are also provided to less well-off patients. In one case, we read about a young boy named Santar, who had been housebound for two years following a traffic incident in a remote part of Northern Laos. Surgery that saved his life at the time left him with only one leg, and the other so badly healed that he could not stand, let alone walk. Once in touch with COPE, Santar made the 24-hour journey to Vientiane to begin treatment at CMR. Local surgeons corrected his left foot, fitted prosthesis for his right leg and an orthosis to his left. Regular physiotherapy and the realisation that he could return to school sustained Santar through four months of treatment, before he was able to return home. A few years on he is now living in the capital and studying English.
The stories told in the COPE museum in Vientiane represent a tiny portion of the 1300 people who receive help each year. Thanks to COPE’s supporters, thousands of people with mobility-related disabilities, including UXO survivors, have been able to regain mobility and dignity.The work that they do is inspiring, crucial and never-ending. For more information visit their website: http://copelaos.org
Entry is free although a donation is encouraged.
They also have a small gift shop where books, toys, cards and keyrings are available – all proceeds goes to COPE.