“Did you know that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history?”
I stared across at my newest travel companions with wide eyes. “Really?”
“Yeah, I know, we didn’t realise either but during the Vietnam war the US dropped millions of cluster bombs and a lot of them didn’t explode so now someone can just be walking along, through a field or something and all of a sudden – bang – they get blown up…”
I turned my gaze over to the outside area of the bar. “That’s insane.”
“People don’t always die from it though, some people lose their arm or their leg.”
“That’s horrible.” I stared off into nothing again.
“I know,” my new friend continued. “- and the worst thing is, it happens mostly to kids.”
After hearing this information, I knew that I needed to learn more. I read about the COPE Visitor Centre on my way to Vientiane and with less than two days to spare, I decided to make it my first priority. I settled in at the hostel, found somewhere to buy veggie food and traced my steps to Khou Vieng Road from Google maps.
COPE is a local not-for-profit organisation helping to provide practical support and rehabilitation services to UXO survivors and people with disabilities. The Visitor Centre provides an insight into the on-going UXO problem and the consequences for the people of Laos.
What is UXO?
Unexploded Ordnance are explosive weapons that did not detonate as intended and therefore still pose a current risk of explosion. According to Legacies of War “about one third of Laos remains contaminated with UXO left behind from the Vietnam War”.
I had already learned from my friend that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history but the information I discovered at Legacies of war really helped to consolidate the reality of this: “From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years…” and it is estimated that “up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode”.
I could scarcely begin to imagine the tragedy and destruction that this has caused but I attempted to understand more at the Centre. I spent about fifteen minutes watching an interview with a mother whose child had died because of an unexploded cluster bomb. The pain, despair and grief was clear in her eyes and I felt my own eyes welling up as I struggled to make sense of the blurry scene before me.
I found much of the information and scenarios that were being presented to me both utterly tragic and disturbingly perverse. One particularly sobering fact that I learned here was that despite the potential risks involved, many young men actively seek the empty bomb shells, as the financial rewards for these materials are seen as invaluable.
Yet as I wondered around the exhibit I was also dumbfounded by the resilience and sense of hope and survival that I was faced with. There were stories of UXO survivors – of all ages – people smiling, playing sports and continuing with their lives. The picture featured in this blog is also a symbol of this inherent need to survive; a collection of old make-shift limbs that people were using before COPE offered them an alternative.
The situation that has been inflicted upon the people of Laos is an on-going tragedy but COPE is helping to improve people’s circumstances in spite of this. As well as providing a number of services to UXO survivors, COPE also supports the Cluster Munition Coalition’s initiative to ban cluster bombs.
If you are planning on visiting the Laos capital of Vientiane, I would definitely recommend that you include the COPE Visitor Centre in your itinerary.
copelaos.org, About Cope
legaciesofwar.org, Leftover Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)
legaciesofwar.org, Secret War in Laos