Laos has the undesirable claim to fame of being the most bombed country in the world (on a per capita basis).
At the 1954 Geneva Conference Laos had been declared a neutral nation. In the war between Vietnam and the USA armed forces were not allowed to cross the borders into Laos, but covertly both sides appeared to be willing to flout this ruling in what is known as The Secret War. CIA operatives secretly trained anti-communist fighters near the Vietnamese borders and the Viet Minh funnelled munitions down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The US response to the movement of arms through Laos, was an almost non-stop carpet bombing mission that devastated the eastern and northeastern parts of the country. Over 580,000 US bombing missions took place, reportedly dropping a plane load of munitions every 8 minutes. The vast majority of these bombs were cluster bombs, that is larger bombs that open in the air spreading lots of smaller bombs across a large area.
Cluster bomb technology is not particularly reliable and therefore Laos has a legacy of UXO, or unexploded ordinance. Laos is an underdeveloped country according to the UN Development Index, sitting a lowly 138th out of 184 listed countries. The impact of this legacy and what steps are being taken to deal with are detailed at the COPE visitor centre, located a little out of the city centre (www.copelaos.com) which we were keen to visit to find out more.
More than 50,000 people have been year are killed or significantly disabled as a result of interactions with UXO between 1964 and 2011. There are the immensely sad stories of the accidents whereby people working in the fields accidentally detonate a buried ‘bombie’ (as they are known), or someone lights a fire and the heat detonates a device underneath the surface.
It isn’t however that simple. The statistics on the UXO accidents captured indicate that the a significant percent of the detonations occur as a result of deliberate interaction by the victims. Official statistics put the percentage at around 20%, but it is believed that the 40% that are given ‘unknown’ in the reports are likely to be due to the same reason but people want to hide the fact.
This means that over half of the incidents a year (though thankfully the number is on a downwards trend) are because people are seeking out the devices. The reason? Money.
UXO is a rich source of scrap metal. Scrap metal hunters know the risks but still do it because the rewards, especially with the global increase in metal values, make it worthwhile. ”It provides me enough money to have an education” is one of reasons we see as part of one of the displays. This highlights that the people injured, more often than not, are children (just over 50% of all incidents involve children).
Taking these risks in a country with medical facilities that are are a far cry from those that you would see in a developed country is even more dangerous.
One story tells of a 9 year old boy named Hamm, who found a UXO with two of his friends. The other two boys were killed instantly when the device detonated, but 9 year old Hamm survived the initial blast and his parents took him on a 5 hour journey to the nearest hospital. When they arrived there was no blood, no oxygen, no drugs. Unable to treat him the family returned home to watch him die. The video running with an interview with his parents telling the story is emotional and hard to watch.
The COPE(Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) centres focus is education and also helping to improve the lives of the survivors in a country lacking the facilites we would expect. Prosthetic limbs, devices to help the disabled cope with the basic necessities of normal life, are not really available. The five COPE centres spread across the country helping to bring a level of normal life back to the people impacted.
Whilst UXO incidents are reducing, other factors are increasing the need for the centres help. One example is that due to the increase in the use of crash helmets by motorcyclists the death rate from road traffic indigents is reducing, but leaving more survivors in need of assistance from COPE.
Before we leave we have a chat with Peter Simm. Peter is a young man 22 years of age, who 6 years ago suffered the loss of both his lower arms and his sight as a result of handling UXO. A remarkable young man who is able to use his mobile phone and laptop with amazing dexterity and that has benefited from the work COPE do and has become a bit of a spokesman for the cause. He shows us some YouTube videos of him meeting Hilary Clinton and his amazing break-dancing skills (check out the links).
For all he has been through he is still just a normal young man. He is interested in the ladies, and we finish the chat by trying to offer some tips for chatting up English girls via FaceBook.