The International Writers Magazine: Comment & Bomb Legacy In Asia
Coping in Laos
Words from a visit to COPE, Vientiane
A chill runs down my back as I walk around the COPE Centre in Vientiane. My belly squeezes with, a somewhat irrational fear. I am surrounded by empty bombs- ghosts of the industry of war. A pretty exhibit of lemon-sized khaki balls, suspended from the ceiling, floats in the air in front of me. I am transfixed by their last dance over Laos.
Image: Prosthetic Leg
In the dusty compound, a rusty brown running lady runs to us, yet frozen on the spot. She reaches her stiff metal hands towards us. She is a statue welcoming us to the centre.
Founded in 1963 to help survivors of UXO bomb blasts through out Laos, COPE provide orthotics, prosthetics. They have five provincial HQ’s throughout Laos PDR, providing treatment and subsidizing relevant costs for surgery, devices, and therapies among other financial help and transport assistance.
The Secret war in Laos
"They dropped the bombs, they don't belong to us and I want them to take them back" unnamed Lao child, Savannakhet. Quoted in the film ‘Bomb Harvest’.
As we know, the Mekong, which runs through much of Laos’ east coast, was a strategic area of the Ho Chi Minh trail, yet Laos was officially neutral throughout the Vietnam War. However, due to the perceived threat of the ‘Domino Effect’, the CIA began secretly training Hmong tribesmen in the fight against Communism. Consequently a civil war erupted within Laos, which lead to the ‘Secret War over the fence’
From 1964-1973 two million tonnes of ordinance was dropped on Laos. A carpet-bombing campaign saw 270, 000, tonnes of cluster munitions (or bombies) also dropped, with an estimated 80,000 failing to detonate. That’s a 30% failure rate. To this day Laos remains the most bombed country on Earth per capita.
Fact: 75% of the Laos population are farmers.
With this amount of bomb waste, farming is almost impossible. The general alternative for people to feed themselves is to hunt for food or metal to sell. In Nong Kiaow and Phonsavan, two of the most bombed provinces, bamboo huts rest atop metal bomb cases; a symbolic clash of East meets West.
As I wander through COPE, displays of bomb-jewellery and kitchenwares bring home the day-to-day reality of living with this amount of UXO. I remember bomb jewellery on display in Vang Vieng’s streets and digest the morbid beauty of necklaces made from bomb casings. Metal adorning skin that in other circumstances might have been worn as shrapnel.
It's actually illegal to manufacture these items, but people still risk themselves because the possibility of making money is such a lure. As Leith Stevens, of MAG, says in the film, ‘Bomb Harvest’, “Sometimes the people are relieved to have the danger gone, but you can see in their faces the disappointment that that money for scrap is walking out the door."
|Even children are aware of the windfall from scrap metal that a bomb can bring. Most children will look for ‘bombies’ which tend to look like small balls, or possibly even fallen fruit, so the possibility of confusion between them is great. Many children lose limbs or lives picking up and throwing what they think is a ball, or trying to twist them open to sell.
Image: River Kids Laos
How you can help
The bombs may only be half the problem, but there is no doubt that the littering of bombies throughout Laos continues to dominate the lives of its people. You can help in many ways like visiting, donating and volunteering a relevant background. Most of all, you can support the campaign to ban cluster bombs.
Where the Mines Advisory Group works to destroy bombs, COPE aids the after effect and the Convention on Cluster Munitions works to ban them. They work with governments to sign the petition to end the production, transfer, stocking and use of all C.M.s. Simply by creating awareness you can help spread the word on a dramatic scale, to bombies worldwide and to help the people of Laos to ‘move on’ with the help of COPE.
“Our work has the ability to change lives of patients, both physically and also affect their souls…COPE is important. It is the only facility in Laos to provide these services”.
Anouxa Phommasane PR Manager for COPE.
Image: Buddha Park
‘The Most Secret Place on Earth (The CIA's Secret War in Laos) 2008
The documentary ‘Bomb Harvest’ can also be seen at the Cope Centre, Vientiane.
SierraLeone with Lucy Munday