Unforgiving Fragments of History: The COPE Center in Vientiane

Laos has a lot to offer the eager traveler: the untainted beauty of its mountains, its ancient temples, the hidden villages lost in time, the wild adventure of its treks. There are two other reasons to visit a country often forgotten in the midst – and mists — of Southeast Asia: humility and perspective.

In Vientiane, there is a small compound surrounded by white walls, not far from the markets and the Laos parliament. Among the buildings inside the walls and off near a corner is a small, white unassuming museum with the letters COPE. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, is a foundation for helping Lao people who were the victims of The Secret War.

COPE gives people the chance to get their lives and limbs back by providing funding and rehabilitation for artificial limbs that were lost as a result of American intervention in Vietnam. This Secret War was “the largest paramilitary operation ever undertaken by the CIA” to quote the CIA , the goal of which was to prevent the spread of Communism into Laos and destroy supply lines that ran along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Vietnam.

Bombies at Vientiane COPE Center in Laos

Go ahead and Google The Secret War…no not the marvel comic series…under that…no wait just stay here.

It’s like this:
– Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita (as a result of The Secret War).
– More than 580,000 bombing missions were flown between 1964 and 1973. That’s approximately one bombing mission every eight minutes for nine years.
– More than two million tons of bombs were dropped during this time period
– More than 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result.

Cluster-Bombs at the COPE Center in Vientiane, Laos

The majority of munitions used on the Laos people, most of whom were villagers and farmers with no involvement in either the Vietnam War or the Laos Civil War, are known as cluster bombs. Cluster bombs release up to 680 sub-munitions, known as bombies, which in turn each explode shrapnel in a 30-meter radius. More than 260 million bombies were dropped on Laos, an estimated 80 million of which did not explode on impact. Unfortunately, these unexploded munitions are often now found by locals while innocently tending their crops or gathering firewood – or worse — by children playing.

 

It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another to see it put right in front of you: the bombs, the rusted metal remnants scavenged by villagers, the children’s pictures, and the prosthetic limbs to replace what was lost.

Child's drawing of Indochina War at the Vientiane COPE Center in Laos

While travelling through Laos bombs shells are often seen reused to make things like flower pots, stoves and ashtrays. It’s easy to see how children (the most common victims of unexploded bombs) would not see the danger of the devices. Perhaps the most humbling, yet simple, part of the experience is putting your hands inside the wooden boxes (pictured). These were designed to help relieve victims experiencing phantom pain—an itching or cramping sensation in the nerves surrounding an amputation.

Experience phantom pain at COPE Center in Vientiane

By putting your hand in the box, and looking into the mirror there is an odd sensation of what it would feel like not to have an arm. For victims, it offers relief by giving them the sensation of scratching their lost arm by looking into the mirror.

Part of travelling to other countries is learning about the culture of the place you’re visiting. Often, however, it’s about learning about your own culture through the lens of another people and their history. While the knowledge gained doesn’t always contain a happy ending, it is often a transformative and humbling experience.