COPE Visitor Centre, Vientiane, Laos

Whilst we were in Vientiane we took a tour of the COPE Visitor Centre. COPE stands for the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. The most common reason people require prosthetics in Laos is due to injuries caused by cluster bombs left behind from 1960’s – 1970’s wartime. Cluster bombs scatter small ‘bombies’ over a wide area, many of which do not explode on impact, thereby remaining a threat for for many years to come. Most shockingly, according to global aid organisation Handicap International, 98% of recorded cluster bomb victims are civilians.

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Outside the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane

The wartime period in Laos is often called the Secret War and this is something we knew little about prior to our visit to COPE. In short, mass bombings were carried out in Laos by U.S. forces in support of the Royal Lao Government, with the U.S. justifying such air strikes as a counter measure to the alleged Communist threat spreading into Laos from Vietnam. However, in reality, little or no justifiable targets did exist. In fact, many U.S. planes simply dropped their bombs on Laos on their way back to their Thai airbases if they had failed or missed their target in Vietnam.

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U.S. bombing in Laos. The areas in red show the heavily affected parts of the country.

The picture below shows a UXO facts and figures sheet which highlights the true extent and aftermath of the Secret War which made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history.

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Our visit to the centre began with watching a documentary about the Secret War. After the feature had finished we had time to wander through numerous exhibits inside the centre. We learnt about the UXO (unexploded ordnance) problem in Laos and the work that COPE does to clear the land from unexploded ‘bombies’. COPE also provides disability services for people affected by UXOs including free prosthetics to any individual who has been maimed by a ‘bombie’.

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However, still to this day, cluster bombs are a major problem in Laos with at least 300 deaths or injuries annually. Whether it’s farmers farming their land or local children from villages mistaking ‘bombies’ for toys, the after effects of the Secret War continue to kill or injure civilians in Laos.

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A metal sculpture outside showing how cluster bombs can impact whole families

Thanks to the work of COPE and other similar UXO organisations, The Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 94 countries in 2008 and it became binding international law in 2010. The Convention bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions and obliges states to clear affected areas and assist victims of cluster bombs. However, notable nations have still not signed the Convention including the U.S, Russia and China.

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A great step forward

Sadly, cluster combs are still evident in our world with their use in Syria being the most modern example. How can a weapon whose victims are 98% innocent civilians still be justifiable today in military conflicts? It seems that as long as cluster bombs are still produced and used, the horrors the people of Laos have experienced will be felt by other innocent civilians worldwide.

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