Between 1964 and 1973 the US army dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Of the more than 270 million sub-munitions, 80 million failed to explode. The nightmare continues to this day: one person is killed or injured almost everyday by unexploded ordinances (UXO) in Laos. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is a non-profit based in Vientiane that runs rehabilitation centres aiming to provide care and support to UXO survivors, including orthotic and prosthetic devices and physiotherapy.
The COPE Visitor Centre educates about the devastating consequences of war, the country’s unfathomable UXO problem, the impact and struggle survivors face and the work that COPE does to give them hope. The centre includes a permanent exhibition, a small cinema room to watch documentaries, shop and cafe.
Step into the centre and you will see a display of bombies dangling from the ceiling. These small round balls look like toys but they kill and maim – they are the main cause of UXO casualties and are considered the greatest risk. The majority of the bombs dropped by the US were cluster munitions – bomb casings containing around 200 smaller “bombies” which were designed to explode upon impact with a hard surface. The extensive vegetation covering the countryside was often not firm enough to trigger explosions. Now contamination threatens 25% of villages throughout Laos. The simple act of picking up the round metal ball, ploughing your farm field, lighting a cooking fire or walking through the forest can set it off. Since the war ended in 1973, more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured – half the victims are children. Victims are left with disabilities such as lost limbs and blindness, and for many families it’s a crippling financial burden. There are very few support systems and resources.
COPE provides orthotics, prosthetics, physical rehabilitation and occupational therapy so those with disabilities can develop independence and become an active member of society. Their motto is “helping people move on”. The services are not limited to UXO victims. COPE also helps those who have been in traffic accidents or been affected by polio, leprosy or club foot, with services specific to children, sometimes providing housing and schooling for young UXO victims whose families cannot afford their care.
Even if you’ve been to the UXO Lao Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang, the COPE Centre is still a worthwhile visit. They tell different stories about the long road to recovery – and it’s a very long road. Less than 1% of bombs that did not detonate have been cleared.
Admission to COPE is free. There are donation boxes for those wishing to contribute, and proceeds from their gift shop and cafe go towards funding the project. If you’re in Vientiane in November/December, check to see whether you’ll be there for their popular annual fundraising concert which usually includes local bands and B-boy groups putting on a great show, with food and drinks.
By Cindy Fan.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.