There is already a rhythm developing to our days. A bit of a sleep in. Excellent coffee Delicious breakfasts. Then we ask Mike what he has in store for us that day. Today we were visiting the COPE centre. Once again we jumped into the twin cab ute (Stella loves it in the back and I actually also rather enjoy it – it’s a great way to really see the street scenes as we travel) and headed in to the centre of town.
Did you have to write essays at school with topics that were really a statement followed by the phrase “compare and contrast”? I find that when we are travelling I constantly compare and contrast. I compare different ways of life, different ways of doing things, different ways of speaking, different cultural approaches – I think it’s all in the effort to make sense and order of the world around me. And I don’t just mean of the country that I am visiting – I also mean the countries of fellow travellers, and my own. In my day job I am used to sorting, ordering, classifying, and grouping. It’s the way that my mind works. My husband says jokingly that I like to put things in boxes. Yes, I categorise. I just hope that I don’t discriminate or judge as well. That’s the challenge.
I said earlier that we are quite ignorant about Laos and its history. I wonder how many of you know about the deliberate bombing that took place in Laos from 1964 to 1973? Some basic information from the Legacies of War website:
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.
Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased.
COPE – Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise – was founded in 1997 by our guesthouse host, Mike Boddington. The goal is for people with physical disabilities to have local, free access to quality rehabilitative services.
There was a massive amount of UXO – unexploded ordnance – left in Laos from the bombings. And every now and then, some of these bombies go off, and maim yet more people.
I cannot fathom how those who order, manufacture and distribute these types of weapons can live with themselves.
From the COPE website:
The effect of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) on Lao PDR has been and continues to be immense. UXOs are ‘explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, launched or projected, and still pose a risk of exploding’. In Lao PDR, there are a range of UXOs contaminating the countryside, including large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars, landmines and cluster munitions (Source: NRA UXO Sector Annual Report 2009).
It has been estimated that around 50 000 people have been injured or killed as a result of UXO incidents between 1964 and 2008. Roughly 30 000 of these incidents occurred during the time of the Second Indochina War/Vietnam War (up until 1973). The other 20 000 occurred in the post-conflict era (from 1973 to 2008). It is estimated that more than 50% of victims in the post-conflict era are children and over 80% of victims are male (Source: NRA UXO Sector Annual Report 2009).
SOME STATISTICS TO REMEMBER:
- 260 million
Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.
- 2 million tons
Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
- 580 000
Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.
- 80 million
Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode.
Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009.
Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR
Children are taught at school not to play with bombies or toss them as balls. UXO can be valuable as it contains both metal and explosives, which can be repurposed (metal casings into utensils, tables, lamps, and other handy household items) or sold. This prompts people to try to retrieve UXO and defuse it – often with tragic consequences. Setting up cooking fires above buried UXO can prompt them to explode. It’s absolutely horrific.
COPE allows people to receive the prostheses and orthoses that they need to live fuller lives, free of charge. It assists all those with physical disabilities, whether received as a result of UXO injury or other birth deformities or acquired injury.
My area of work is in healthcare. In Australia children born with clubfoot have it identified shortly after birth, and have physiotherapy and orthoses to treat it (primarily paid for by our health care system). Some may need surgery, and will receive it (primarily paid for by the state).
Until COPE was set up in Laos children born with clubfoot didn’t have it treated. They grew up with a developing physical disability that continued to affect the quality of their life. Remember, this isn’t a country set up to be easily accessible for those with physical disabilities. There aren’t any ramps here. It distresses me greatly that medical care that we take for granted in Australia is not accessible here – and the long-term ramifications are huge.
It also distresses me greatly that the countries primarily involved in bombing Laos (primarily the USA) in the first place do not do more to assist those who are the ongoing victims of their actions. Have a read of COPE’s fundraising page to get an idea of the difficulties of continuing to provide a quality, free service to the population. All that money spent on death and destruction, yet so little spent to assist those left behind. I find this highly confronting. And we all know that similar is continuing in other countries today.
I really can’t communicate adequately about this in a few short paragraphs. I will add a few links to information about The Secret War in Laos and about COPE for those of you wishing to read further.
- Laos – Legacies of War
- Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos
- Victim Assistance in the World Today
- Why Laos Was Bombed: The Enemy Is Me (a TED talk by Mike Boddington, now on youtube)
And then, rather incongruously, I buy some Colin Cotterill books (from the Dr Siri series set in Laos) and keyrings from the COPE visitor centre gift shop, and we eat ice cream (happy rainbow with fluffy clouds flavour). Surreal.
Then we went to Kung’s Cafe for a delicious lunch.
When I write about my day, I shake my head as we move from learning about the horrors of war to sitting down in a gorgeous laneway eating local food. It doesn’t seem quite real.
Our group is an interesting mix of nationalities. All my readers know that we are Australian. Our host, Mike, is English. His wife Xioukiet is Lao. The other guests are Joe, who is from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, USA, and Joe’s brother-in-law Thanh, who is from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. We had a great deal of conversation, much of it challenging and thought provoking, throughout the day and over meals. Joe had been a Vietnam war protester, yet he’d never heard of the war in Laos. Thanh is from the south of Vietnam so had another perspective and set of knowledge on the region’s history. Our conversations swayed from domestic politics to the history of Laos to responsibilities following war to differences in spoken english from country to country. Joe now knows all about fridges, tellies and wheelie bins! We’ve had serious conversations and a great deal of laughter mixed in. This is the joy and the value of international travel.
On our way home we stopped to investigate some rice shops. There are over 2000 varieties of rice grown here in Laos! As a consequence the sheer number of types of rice varieties provides the rest of the world with genetic diversity and insurance to make sure that their rice crops can still be maintained. The Lao buy different varieties of rice for different purposes, but as in many countries, things are starting to change in terms of rice production and usage. From the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) website: Lao PDR has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity of rice in the world, and it appears to be the center of biodiversity for glutinous rice. Much of this rice is conserved in IRRI‘s International Rice Genebank. Rice production in the country is subsistence-oriented. It is produced mainly by small farm households that have an average farm size of less than two hectares. Although rice production is the single most important economic activity, accounting for 39% of agricultural gross domestic product, very little rice is currently marketed.
There is some more information on IRRI’s work in Laos here.