COPE – Picking up the pieces in Laos 39 years after the “Secret War” ended

COPE Visitor Centre

We visited the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane with a very brief understanding of what it was about but after spending a couple hours in the exhibits and movie rooms I walked out of there with deep sense of sadness for what happened in Laos all those years ago.

So I did a little more research to try find out a bit more about why Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history!

A brief description of their organisation as taken from the COPE website;

“Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, otherwise known as COPE, is a locally run non-profit organisation working with the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation (CMR), Lao Ministry of Health and four provincial rehabilitation centres in an innovative partnership to provide comprehensive rehabilitation services for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors and other people with disabilities across Lao PDR.

COPE and CMR together are currently the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos.”

When they mention Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) they mean the little bombs or sub-munitions (bombies) that are packed together into larger bombs that make up Cluster Bombs. UXOs also include unexploded large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars and land-mines but it’s the bombies that are the real problem. Roughly 30% of the bombies in every cluster bomb don’t explode on impact and embed themselves into the ground which, years later, can still explode if someone stands on it, knocks it or lights a fire near to it.

Clockwise from top left; Bombies, Rockets & Mortars, Land-mines, Big Bombs

Why is this such a problem in Laos?

The reason these little horrors are such a problem to this day is because of the wide scale bombing of Laos during the “Secret War” from 1964 to 1975. The bombings were part of the U.S. War in Laos to support the Royal Laotian Government against the Pathet Lao and to disrupt Vietnamese traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the Vietnam War.

In 1961 the communist North Vietnam began advancing into South Vietnam, using military forces, with the intention of creating a communist type government in the south and in neighbouring Laos. Vietnam also enlisted Laos’ communist Pathet Lao party to fight. Thailand, sharing Laos’ eastern border, realised the potential problem with having a communist neighbour and supported the Royal Laotian Party, the party in power in Laos at the time.

While already committed to the ongoing war in Vietnam the United States of America, being the Champions of Anti-Communism, also joined the alliance with Thailand to halt the North Vietnamese/ Pathet Lao advance into Laos. However when the U.S.A. pulled out of the area following the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, the Pathet Lao gained control of the country and created a communist government anyway.

What happened during that time has left Laos with deep and terrifying scars.

Here are some statistics to put it in perspective;

  • During 1964 and 1973 the United States conducted 580,000 bombing missions in Laos. That is one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 9 years!
  • Over 2 million tons of Ordnance were dropped on Laos during the war.
  • 270 million bombies were dropped during these missions (210 million more than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined). Approximately 80 million bombies remained unexploded throughout the country after the war.
  • 25% of all villages in Laos are still contaminated with UXO.
  • All 17 provinces of Laos suffer from UXO contamination.
  • More than 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO incidences in the period 1964 – 2011. Over 95% of which were civilians.
  • More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO incidences in the post war period 1974 – 2011
  • Out of this 20,000; 13,500 lost a limb and 40% are children.
  • Today approximately 100 new casualties still occur annually.
  • More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
  • Many farmers in Laos know their land is contaminated but can’t afford another plot. They simply have no choice but to cultivate their land.

    Bombs on display

    We saw these on display by the road side in a tiny village near Paksong in Southern Laos

So what’s been done about it?

The Laos National Unexploded Ordnance Program (or UXO Lao) was created in February 1996 to not only clear the land of UXOs but also to create awareness of the dangers associated with UXOs, especially in children.

Their mandate is to “Reduce the number of casualties caused by unexploded ordnance, and Increase the amount of land available for food production and other socio-economic development activities.”

In the poorer villages it’s common to see bomb parts and shrapnel being used as everyday items such as cups, buckets or even house foundations. Therefore children are growing up exposed to having these materials around so if they find something similar when out playing in a field they wouldn’t understand the destructive nature of what they are playing with. Some people have gone so far as to pay children for the scrap metal from exploded munitions so the kids are also going out and digging these up themselves.

Bucket made from a parachute flare casing

Bucket made from a parachute flare casing

Despite UXO Laos’ dedicated teams of people currently working to clear UXOs from parts of Laos, nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.

COPE works closely with the provincial governments, UXO Laos and the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation by assessing and developing treatment plans for not only UXO victims but children with disabilities, polio, leprosy, trauma and club foot. They also provide physiotherapy and occupational therapy for adults too.

COPE and UXO Laos operate solely on public and private grants from various supporting countries and stakeholders.

Working with COPE

Used and redundant prosthetics

Now here’s the bewildering part

Since 1997, the U.S. State Department has contributed on average $3M per year for UXO clearance in Laos whereas the U.S. spent roughly $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos. Or put it this way, the U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos than it spent for clean up over 18 years.

This contribution increased to £9M in 2012 to coincide with Hilary Clinton’s visit to Laos. While these amounts are not to be snuffed at, Hilary Clinton still believes, “We (the U.S.) have to do more.”

The Cluster Munition Coalition is an international civil society campaigning for “An end for all time to the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions.” Their goal is to have every country in the world sign a treaty that prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions.

As of January 2012, 111 countries have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions which, by international law, prohibits the use of cluster munitions in any situation.

Unsurprisingly, the United States has not signed the convention.

Bombies

“Bombies”

But none of this should put you off visiting Laos!

Despite these shocking statistics, Laos is a very safe country to visit. All the areas where tourists will potentially go have been cleared. These incidences mostly occur on rural farmlands.

That said, if you are planning on going hiking in a less popular area it is best to stick to a clear path than go trail blazing through the bush.

And please do visit and support the COPE visitor’s centre in Vientiane. It was one of the most shocking yet awe-inspiring exhibits I have seen. Although the information about the war and its horrendous effects are well displayed and very informative, they also showcase some of the wonderful and inspiring rehabilitation work they do with victims of UXO incidences.

Outdated Prosthetic Limbs

A haunting display of the evolution of prosthetic legs

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