Scattered throughout Laos are as many as 80 million unexploded ordnances (UXO), cluster bombs that have yet to be detonated, waiting patiently to be discovered by some unfortunate person. Referred to as “bombies” by locals, these remnants of the Vietnam War are just another reminder to the people in Southeast Asia of the damaging affects wars can cause well after they have ended. About 260 million cluster bombs were dropped in an area covering about 1/3 of Laos, near the Vietnam border, between 1964 and 1973 by the US government. This was done as part of a secret war against the Pathet Lao, a communist political party, who were operating along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. An indirect consequence of these actions are that millions of cluster bombs are still in the region, killing and maiming people regularly.
Cleaning up this mess is a slow and dangerous process. A few groups exist in Laos who work diligently to clear cluster bombs from the countryside, but it can take up to 10 days to safely clear an area the size of a football field. Despite the work of these brave individuals, people still frequently discover bombies on their farms on while looking for recyclables to turn in for money. Countless stories of children playing with cluster bombs or farmers plowing their fields and accidentally striking a bombie exist. Sadly, most of these stories have very tragic endings. Thousands of people in Laos live with debilitating handicaps or family deaths as a result of cluster bombs. For most of these people there is little in the way of support, those who live in the countryside do not access to hospitals or rehabilitation centers and could most likely not afford the steep medical costs anyway. Many people lose limbs or suffer severe damage to their face and eyes, making it impossible for them to work in the fields, thus becoming a burden to their families.
There are emerging humanitarian groups that are doing amazing things to support people affected by cluster bombs. One such organization is COPE, located in Vientiane. COPE is a non-profit organization that provides prosthetic limbs, engages people in rehabilitation, funds medical treatment, and educates the community about the dangers and impacts of cluster bombs. There is a small museum located on the grounds that gives people a very moving experience. There are documentaries with stories from survivors of cluster bomb explosions and from families who have lost loved ones. The process of creating prosthetic limbs is described along with inspirational stories from those whose lives they have changed. Outside of the museum are facilities where wheelchairs are made, a recreation center for those with physical handicaps, and rehabilitation centers. It is free to visit COPE but there is a small gift shop located inside the museum with all proceeds going to help those affected by cluster bombs.
*These are homemade prosthetics COPE has collected from people after they have provided them with new, state of the art prosthetic limbs.
*Plaster cast molds of cluster bombs hang from the ceiling. Their small size and shape make them easy for children to mistake as toys, resulting in tragic accidents every year.
*Part of the area on the grounds are used for making specialized wheelchairs for victims of cluster bombs. This allows victims more mobility and the chance to lead a more normal life.