Sunday, December 29, 2019

COPE Center in Laos

COPE Center, Vientiane
This morning I walked to the COPE Center in Vientiane, Laos. The visitor center is part of a larger complex that is focused on the continuing victims of a war that ended nearly 50 years ago.
Sculpture made from cluster bomb materials
Walking past buildings dedicated to supporting those disabled by unexploded ordnances (UXO's) such as a special gymnasium and wheelchair fitting, signs pointed me to the visitor center. In front of the building was a sculpture made from different components of cluster bombs. Next to the entrance, a cluster bomb casing was repurposed as a planter.

Inside, one of the video displays played this (above) video. Posters listed some staggering statistics of the horrible bombings that occurred in Laos from 1964-1973.
A few statistics:

  • Over 270 million "bombies" (small bombs contained within large cluster bombs) were dropped over Laos during this time period.
  • 580,000 bombing missions were conducted
  • Between 10-30% of all "bombies" (over 80 million) failed to detonate and are still dangerous
  • From 1996-2009, nearly 1,100,000 unexploded "bombies" were destroyed by UXO Lao.
  • Laos is the most heavily bombed country; more bombs were dropped here than in all of WWII. 
The center had a small theatre for watching a selection of videos. The one I watched featured some of the victims of these unexploded munitions, particularly the small "bombies." Examples of some victims' stories included a mother whose leg was blown off when the heat from her cooking fire detonated a bombie. Or a rice farmer who when using a tool to plant rice accidentally hit a bombie.. Having lost vision in one eye and one leg amputated, he no longer is able to support his family. His children have had to drop out of school in order to help farm in the same fields that may contain more UXO's. The video also showed children using metal detectors to find scrap metal left from the bombing raids, irrespective of the real dangers of encountering UXO's. 
Prosthetics "wall"

The COPE center also helps fit victims with more lightweight prosthetics; these give victims more mobility than even the clumsy, heavy ones they may have fashioned themselves in their villages. The organization also provides community outreach, going directly to remote villages to provide equipment, repairs, medical assistance, etc. Funding is also provided to enable victims to come to rehab centers, receive surgery, etc. 

While in Luang Prabang, I visited a similar visitor center. Posters there described how programs continue to occur in educating villagers of the dangers of UXO's  - what they look like and what to do if they encounter a UXO. Specially trained people are working at locating and destroying the UXO's, enabling the cleared land to be safely used for farming or residences.  Due to the large numbers of UXO's remaining despite continued efforts at locating and destroying the bombies, it is estimated that it may take nearly 100 years for Laos to be free of this scourge that continues to negatively impact the economy of Laos and its citizens.