Today was a hard day. It started off with my having to farewell yet more friends and face the prospect of a night bus on my own. I posted a picture with the girls and hash-tagged ‘challenge’ in it.
There is no challenge with saying a temporary farewell to friends (yes Mog and Bog – it is a temporary farewell!). There is however a challenge in losing a limb, in being injured by an Unexploded Ordinance (UXO). There is a challenge in not knowing that help is available and therefore spending two years of your life crying on the floor, giving up on school and life.
Today I visited the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitors Centre in Vientiane. COPE is a wonderful organisation that are working with international experts to train and educate local people on how to deal with loss of limbs, rehabilitate and educate, and provide support to those affected.
I visited the UXO Centre in Luang Prabang, and whilst the information was well presented, it was also quite clinical. There were lots of stats and information about the bombs dropped on Laos throughout the Vietnam War, yet apart from a short documentary, there was nothing else personal. I am exceptionally glad that I visited – even prouder knowing that as an Australian, my government has provided much needed funding to this great cause. After having travelled through Vietnam and Cambodia, I gained quite the insight into their histories and was curious to learn more about Laos.
Laos really is an unknown frontier. I’ve mentioned before how little I knew about what I was visiting on arrival and how I’ve been happily surprised by everything. When I visited a sweet café in Luang Prabang, I asked if there had been a war in Laos, if there had been a strong conflict here, similar to that in Cambodia or Vietnam. She said there had been small tribal conflicts, but nothing to the extent of other countries nearby.
What I have found out is that bombs decimated Laos. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. Over two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This equates to a bombing every eight minutes for nine years. Every eight minutes a bomb was dropped over Laos. For a war they were not involved with.
The USA bombed Laos during the Vietnam War to cut off the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ – the route being used for travel between the North and South. There seemed to be little to no consideration for the local people and the thousands of civilian lives lost. Of the 270 million ‘bombies’ dropped, it can be estimated that 30% of them didn’t explode – leaving anywhere up to 80 million left in the ground.
80 million unexploded bombs, waiting for children to find and play with, waiting for farmers to unearth when ploughing their fields, waiting for innocent bystanders to step on. The results are devastating. Children don’t recognise these ball type objects, so pick them up to play with. Teenagers get metal detectors to look for them and hope to make money selling them for scrap metal. If lucky, when the bombs explode, they’ll only lose an eye or an arm, or end up filled with shrapnel. The unlucky ones will die, and die painfully.
COPE is there to help these victims and the visitor centre has a short film on the story of 9-year-old Hamm. Hamm was playing with two school friends and following some ‘big people’ around who were looking for scrap metal. The big people recognised the bombs, so placed them in a pile to the side. The kids didn’t know why they were put aside. They picked two up, and Hamm’s friends banged them together. The result was instantaneous. The two boys died immediately. Hamm was injured, but survived.
Local villagers heard the explosion and went rushing for Hamm’s parents. They managed to get a truck to take Hamm to their local hospital. They were told that there was no blood or oxygen; Hamm couldn’t be treated. They made the journey to the next hospital – being bigger, they hoped for a better response. They didn’t get it. Again, no blood or oxygen. Hamm’s ‘guts were hanging out his side’.
The bigger hospital was too far away and the truck driver didn’t want Hamm to die in his truck. His mother and father were forced to make a decision. It was better for him to die at home. They got home and Hamm was thirsty, he asked for water. His mother told him they had none. He then passed away. Hamm’s mother broke down in the video, as did I. The film cuts to Hamm’s father ‘it was better for him to die at home’.
A nine-year-old boy died from a UXO in 2005 – forty years after the bombing stopped. A nine-year-old boy died because his country was bombed during a war that they had nothing to do with. A nine-year-old boy died because up to 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t explode.
I walked throughout the entire exhibition at the visitor centre with Hamm at the back of my mind. I have an eight-year-old nephew – the thought of him dying because of a bomb from 40 years ago – I can’t even begin to imagine. Yet this is a reality for so many rural villagers in Laos. There are steps being taken to clear farm land of any remaining bombs – it had been initially thought this could take up to 100 years to finalise, however due to a change in technology, it is hoped that the land will be cleared by 2021.
As much as there was a strong focus on the UXOs and the remnants from the war, COPE is helping not just those affected by explosions. Due to illness or accident, many people require replacement or support limbs, and COPE help with all of that. They use recycled materials as much as possible and are making a huge difference to the lives of many. They even provide financial support to those who can’t afford the surgery or rehabilitation – including board and meals for a support family member.
The visitor centre is filled with stories and images of recipients, and the smiles now on their faces, the joy radiating from them as they can now ‘go back to work/school’ and get on with their lives and support their families. It is so refreshing to know that organisations like this exist and are making a real life difference. They are training their staff to up skill and hope to stop relying on international aid and assistance in the future. For a country that is extremely poor and has seemingly little to no medical infrastructure, their accomplishments are outstanding.
Whilst I did cry today with Hamm’s story, and other children’s drawings of blood, body parts and bombs, I am heartened to know that through adversity there is help and support and kindness.
There is so little known about Laos and so much to be discovered. I was told that Vientiane didn’t have much going for it – well clearly those people hadn’t visited COPE or simply don’t know much of the history. Laos has made a huge imprint on my heart and I can’t see me seeing life and simple things in the same way when I get back home.
There is so much more to traveling than seeing a city and posting a picture to social media, than speaking with a few locals, to having drinks on a tube floating down a river. There are lessons to be learned and being thankful and grateful for what you have and who you are. We can all try to be half as helpful as the people of Laos to help those less fortunate than us.
Today did present some challenges, but nothing that I can’t easily overcome.
*stats obtained from COPE Visitor Centre, Vientiane, Laos
I urge you to visit them in person, or electronically: http://www.copelaos.org