We visited the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane, Laos and this is what we learned…
Between 1964 and 1973 the US bombed Laos continuously, despite Laos being a peaceful, neutral country and despite the US never openly declaring war on Laos. Even the American people didn’t know it was happening. This was of course the time of the Vietnam war and the threat of communism spreading in SE Asia caused great fear in America. The Ho Chi Min Trail ran through southern Laos and was a supply line for the Vietnamese, as a result this was the original target in Laos. However the whole of the eastern border ended up being bombed, as well as the northern area of Laos where many north Vietnamese were believed to be hiding. Every red dot on this map represents a bombing mission:
The weapon of choice was the cluster bomb. These are fired and then the casing opens releasing many small sub-munitions, known locally as bombies (a name that sounds far too affectionate for my liking). The bombies are scattered indiscriminately across a wide area and the estimated number dropped during those 9 years, is in excess of 260 million!
The problem with bombies, apart from their indiscriminate use and lack of target, is that there’s a 30% chance they won’t explode on impact, a 30% known failure rate. That’s 78 million unexploded bombies just left lying around Laos. Whatever the politics of the time, the fact is that now in 2010 pretty much all of that unexploded ordnance (UXO) still litters much of the Laos countryside. To date the number of sub-munitions painstakingly cleared and destroyed to date is 387,645 or 0.49%.
Laos is a poor, rural country where the majority of the people are subsistence rice farmers. Most people live in small villages, in wooden houses and farm the fields. As the bombing campaign against Laos was secret, the US did not adhere to the Geneva Convention which states that civilian areas can not be bombed. Many people lost their lives during those 9 years. However it is the lasting legacy that is an even greater problem for the people of Laos. These UXO are everywhere…. you may be ploughing your rice field and hit a bombie, walking in the forest looking for fruit and a child picks up a yellow bombie that looks like fruit, kids find a bombie and think it’s a ball and start throwing it to each other. Other stories include a woman cooking over a fire (as is the norm here) and heating the ground below her, causing a bomb buried below to heat up and explode.
Many deaths and severe injuries, leading to amputation and blindness, happen each year and have done since 1973. Some of these injuries are as a result of handling UXO (trying to move them or unearth them, or transport them to sell as scrap metal!?!) and many are involuntary (a farmer hitting one in his field). 50% of deaths and injuries are to children, who despite more widespread education on the subject, still pick them up and don’t see the danger. % of deaths cause by:
1.Handling of UXO (24%)
3.Forest products collection (14%)
4.Lighting fires/cooking and other domestic activities (12%)
5.Playing with UXO (11%).
COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide prosthetics and mobility devices for those people who require them, free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them.
COPE is the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos. Established by POWER International in 1997, COPE is a joint venture between the Ministry of Health and a number of NGOs (Non-government organisations).
COPE not only provide help to UXO victims but also to those who have lost limbs through accidents (like Santar left), and they work with parents whose babies and children suffer from the condition known as club foot.
The visitor centre is well worth a visit and they screen a number of films on the subject, including ‘Bomb Harvest’, fantastic and shocking film showing the work that MAG (Mines Advisory Group) are doing to clear bombies and what they call big bombs, as well as the training programme they run to teach local people the skills need to clear bombs. Another is ‘Bombies’, with stories from survivors and old villagers who remember the bombing campaign.
The work that COPE do is amazing and gives hope to many people who would otherwise be forgotten and left unable to provide for their families. Their outreach programme allows them to identify people in remote areas, giving those people chance to access the services and support COPE have to offer.
Whilst their work is very positive, I still left the centre feeling very shocked and angry really. How come I didn’t know about this before? Sure everyone knows about Vietnam, but hardly anyone (my age) knows about Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world or this terrible UXO legacy. And angry because Laos is so under developed that it doesn’t have the infrastructure or resources to deal with the casualties… A little boy goes with two classmates to play in the woods near their village, one finds a bombie and picks it up, it explodes, the two classmates are killed outright, this little boy was further back so was injured but alive. His parents have to find someone with a vehicle to take him to hospital. Several hours later they arrive at hospital, but the hospital has no blood or oxygen and can not help him. They go to the next hospital, but they have no blood or oxygen either. So with no other help available, they take their little boy back home and a few hours later, he dies.
1 August 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force, banning the production, use and stockpiling of cluster bombs. As of Nov 1 2010, the UK enters into this legally binding law (thank goodness!). 108 countries have signed the convention, however many countries have still not signed up, including the US, Russia and China, and work continues to stigmatise the use of cluster bombs as a weapon. Read more here www.stopclustermunitions.org
Also see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-10829976
Visit the COPE website: http://www.copelaos.org