In late 2007, I visited health services in Thailand, Laos and Borneo on an International Health study tour. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we visited COPE (Co-operative Orthopaedic & Prosthetic Enterprise), a non-profit organisation which provides prosthetic limbs, mobility assistance and rehabilitation for Lao people who have lost limbs. Most of their clients are victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO).
We were given a talk about the work that COPE does by a British occupational therapist called Jo Pereira. She had gone to Laos on holiday and ended up working at COPE. They had just started creating a Visitors’ Centre in an old storeroom with a budget of just $9,000. The aim was to promote COPE’s services, in order to attract funding to continue its work, and to spread awareness about what happened in Laos during the Vietnam War.
During the Vietnam War, Laos was officially a neutral country and not part of the war. However, the North Vietnamese Army invaded and occupied eastern parts of Laos to use as a staging ground and supply route for its war against the south. Rules of conduct had to be followed in Vietnam, but these were not observed in Laos. The United States bombed North Vietnamese bases in Laos to disrupt supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also dropped any unused bombs over Laos on the way back to base, as it was dangerous to land with bombs on board.
This resulted in Laos being the most heavily bombed country (per capita) on the planet. Over two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos during more than 580,000 bombing missions – an average of one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for the nine years of the Vietnam War. When the results from a disability survey and the US bombing path are overlaid on Google Earth they match up exactly.
The bombing destroyed the limited infrastructure in Laos and forced much of its rural population to live in caves. On a recent hike in Laos, our guide, Mee, told us he was born in 1972 in a cave. Food was scarce during the war years so Mee’s growth was stunted and he is less than five feet tall. He said that he cried so much when he was a baby that his mother threatened to kill him, but luckily his grandfather intervened.
Nearly a third of the 270 million bombies dropped on Laos failed to explode on impact, leaving a lethal legacy. Over a third of agricultural land is still contaminated and the people most at risk are farmers (70% of the population), who are torn between providing food for their families or avoiding getting maimed or killed, and children who find the bombies and play with them thinking they are toys. In the post-war period up to 2011, 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO incidents and 40% of these were children. Around 100 new casualties still occur annually.
Local people are being trained to dispose of the UXO, but they can only clear land at a rate of 40 square kilometres a year with the current resources. Vast tracts of Laos are unsafe and it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Laotians were, and continue to be, victims of the ‘Secret War’ in Laos – a conflict that had nothing to do with them.
I wanted to return to COPE on my recent visit to Vientiane to see how the Visitors’ Centre had evolved, but I wasn’t sure that I would be able to find it as I had forgotten what the organisation was called. I needn’t have worried, when I Googled ‘prosthetics Vientiane’ page after page of listings for COPE (of course that’s what it was called!) came up. In fact, the COPE Visitors’ Centre is now a starred attraction in the Lonely Planet guide and the top Vientiane attraction on TripAdvisor.
It’s easy to see why. There’s a rolling program of fascinating documentaries in the Cave Cinema, and the innovative exhibits include an artistic arrangement of cluster bombs, a teetering pile of prosthetic legs and a replica of a wood and thatch home.
While I was in the Visitors’ Centre a tour group arrived. Among them was an elderly American man who had flown bombers during the Vietnam War. I heard him explaining to others in his group how the bombs were attached to the planes, how many he carried and how heavy they were. He didn’t seem at all remorseful for the suffering his actions had caused. We later saw him at dinner and he was still regaling his table with tales of his war years.
The COPE Visitors’ Centre is a ‘must see’ if you’re in Vientiane. It’s open every day between 9am and 6pm. Entry is free but make sure you buy a t-shirt and a homemade ice cream (the ‘Death by Chocolate’ is, as its name suggests, to die for) as all proceeds from sales go into the COPE coffers.