Before coming to Laos, I didn't know that 1964 to 1973, the U.S. bombed Laos severely during 580,000 missions. On average, a plane bombed Laos every 8 minutes, constantly, for 9 years. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Unfortunately, about 30% of the bombs (an estimated 80 million) didn't explode, and Laos is still littered with them today. When these UXOs (unexploded ordnances) are found or stumbled upon by children or farmers, the bombs sometimes explode, causing deaths and dismemberments.
This is happening today.
With this in mind, I visited the COPE center feeling that I had to go, but with a sense of apprehension. I was worried that the exhibits would be depressing and horrific, full of gruesome photos.
I was wrong. The visitor center is wonderful. It’s educational, focusing on the current situation and not blaming anyone for what’s past. They tell incredibly sad stories in a matter-of-fact way, not going for shock value. I learned that Lao people sometimes collect the bombs to sell on the black market (sometimes just to earn the equivalent of $2-3), that children sometimes mistake the small bombs for fruit or a toy. I watched a fascinating documentary called Bomb Harvest, about people who are working today to safely dispose of the bombs.
The best part was hearing what COPE is doing to help amputees get correctly-fitting prosthetics, take care of people with other health issues, and educate children about what UXOs look like and how to avoid them. However, it is truly sad to realize that less than 1% of the UXOs have been disposed of, and the cleanup is going very slowly due to a lack of trained resources.
I would highly recommend visiting COPE if you’re in Vientiane, and learning more about this so-called “Secret War”. It’s a sobering reminder that the effects of war live on, way past when the troops return home.