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COPE - helping people move on from UXO injury in Laos

In the 1960-70s the US dropped more bombs on Laos - a country they were not at war with - than they dropped during the entire WWII campaign. 50 years on, Laos is still taking one cautious step at a time .

The roads here are a shocker. Even by South East Asian standards. Of the few that are sealed, the sealed surface drops off every km or sooner, and I mean 'drops' with a bone jarring jolt.

Part of the reason for the shabby state of the roads is the fact the government has to spend a large portion of its meagre budget clearing the half a million unexploded ordnance (UXO) dropped by the United States in its secret war against Laos' civilians.

Laos, which was an internationally recognised neutral party in the American-Vietnam war, had more bombs dropped on it by the U.S. than the US drooped on Europe and Japan combined in the whole of WW2. With 2 million tonnes of bombs dropped between 1964-1973, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita.

And this bombing campaign continued long after the U.S. stopped bombing North Vietnam. Thousands of Laos villagers fled and, of course, thousands more were killed. But the real tragedy is in how many are still dying and losing limbs from the unexploded cluster bombs littering villages and fields.

This isn't just a problem in Laos. In Vietnam and Cambodia you're told not to leave the paths or roads because of mines. That's not a big ask for tourists but these things are in peoples backyards, schools and under their rebuilt homes. Farmers ploughing fields and removing tree stumps are killed. Poor families collecting scrap metal to sell for cash are killed. Kids thinking it's a toy are killed. Just lighting a fire to cook rice can heat the earth enough to trigger a buried bomb.

The U.S. hasn't taken full responsibility for the havoc it has caused and only provides limited financial support to Laos to deal with the crisis they created.

Worse still, around the world the U.S. continues to use cluster bombs that disproportionately target civilians through both the indiscriminate blanket bombing these bombs were designed for, and how long after the war ends these small toy like bombs hang around half armed. The U.S. refuses to sign the international treaty against their use.

Unsurprisingly, Laos was one of the first to sign.

COPE is one of the organisations in Laos who has the daunting task of providing prosthetics and physical rehabilitation to those injured or maimed by unexploded ordnances. They don't only work with UXO victims but it is a large part of what they unfortunately have to do.

Is a not for profit organisation, working in partnership with the Laos Ministry of Health and various other local and international partners including USAID. COPE delivers it's services on a budget of only around US$1million per annum. That's really not a lot when you consider they are providing around 1200 prosthetics devices to patients a year.

One of the barriers to treatment - both initial and ongoing - is the remoteness of the patients. Even on a 'decent' road in Laos it can take many hours to reach the city. Let alone, from the farmland where many people live with no road access at all and no vehicle. COPE attempts to reach remote communities with its mobile clinic.

But the main work of COPE can be simply thought of as "Helping People Move On" as their tagline states. The loss of a leg or arm to a subsistence farmer, particularly the main breadwinner who may have elderly parents or children to care for is devastating. Learning the stories of patients in their own words you begin to understand the positive impact this organisation has on their lives as much as you understand the tragic impact the bombing runs have had.

Individuals can get an insight to the work of COPE and an understanding of the sheer size of the UXO problem in Laos by visiting the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane. It's a little out of the way - a tuk tuk drive from the CBD - but well worth it. Their website even has an audio file to play the tuk tuk driver if he's confused about where the place is so there's really no excuse not to go. Onsite is a cafe and gift shop and all your money goes to COPE who's services are essential to rebuild the lives of locals.

Do You Want To Know More?

SEE WHO HAS SIGNED THE TREATY: Cluster Munition Coalition

WHO IS COPE?: Find out more about COPE , a provider of prosthetics and physical rehabilitation services in Laos




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