Coping with Unexploded Ordinance, Part 2: The Good

Yesterday Ricky wrote about the secret tragedy in Laos, about how hundreds of people a year are killed or injured by UXOs dropped by the America military during the Vietnam War.

However, as is common when a tragedy strikes a community, a sense of togetherness prevails. People reach out to other people, to help them, to ease their suffering, to mourn with them.

I am speaking specifically of an organization called COPE, headquartered in Vientiane.  COPE is the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and is a non-profit organization that provides artificial limbs and other help to those affected by the UXOs.

A couple nights ago, we heard about a charity concert taking place at the center to celebrate its 15th birthday, so we took the free shuttle and headed there. There were tons of foreigners and locals alike, dancing along to Lao hip-hip group Cell-T club and pop singer Aluna. 

Aluna serenading the audience.

One of the most amazing things about the concert was that it was held at the center of the complex of buildings that comprises an area that caters to the physically disabled. To our left was a school for the deaf, and those kids were the first ones dancing when a new song started.  

These kids know how to rock.

When the birthday cake was brought out, it wasn’t long before Ricky and I had frosting all over our faces, much to the enjoyment of the deaf kids. Soon enough, they too had frosting on their faces, courtesy of me.

The event was amazing, and all the proceeds from food, beverages, t-shirts, etc. went directly to COPE.  The next day we decided we’d take a trip to the visitor’s center and see what it was all about.

We arrived at the visitors center and began an enlightening/heartbreaking/angering/touching tour. Along the walls were descriptions of the types of bombs used, and what kind of damage they were capable of. Next we learned about how villagers used metal remnants of the bombs to make everything from buckets to ladders to doors for their homes.  There was a display home set up, where we could walk through and see how much these people relied on something so dangerous.

Pots, pans, cups, and other things made from bomb pieces.

At one point I stopped to ask a staff member some questions. He was a young guy, missing both hands and was blind. His name was Peter, and he was a good-humored guy, asking me why my name didn’t sound American if I was from the States.  We chatted about the center and Lao architecture with easy smiles and friendly tones.

After that, we watched a short 8 minute video of an interview of a set of parents that lost their 9 year old child to a bombie. His two friends died immediately but he was taken to a hospital a few hours away. There was no oxygen or blood to help him, so they took him home and let him die.  The mother cried. The father was indignant. Their pain was real.  

We then read stories of people who had been injured by the bombs, losing arms, legs, eyes. Their entire lives were changed. Most of them lived in very rural villages where working in the fields was a necessity. There was no workman’s comp, no light duty. They simply had to carry on. Many of them made artificial legs from wood or bamboo.  Others simply had no other choice than to remain at home. Injured children had to stay home from school, and could barely move around without assistance.

Enter COPE. 

COPE is with the victim from day one of their recovery. They pay for travel, accommodation, and food for those that live in villages outside of the city. Once at the center they are measured for prosthetics and given ample physical therapy.  They are instructed and aided in making their homes more accessible to them.  They are refitted for new prosthetics when old ones are damaged or outgrown, all free of charge.  But most of all, they are given hope. Victims are taught that they can have a normal life, that they can carry on as before, with minor adjustments.

Furthermore, COPE offers help to those who suffer not only from UXOs, but also children born with clubfoot and people who have lost limbs in car accidents or suffer from other physically disabilities. 

Through COPE, families and communities are strengthened and brought together. There is more education on what to do if you come upon a UXO and trained people voluntarily trek through the jungle searching for UXOs to be detonated.  There is hope that the Lao people will overcome this trial.

The red poles mark UXOs found. They will be detonated by trained professionals.

After leaving the center, I felt so moved and wondered if there was anything I could do. I remembered the mother in the video saying there was no blood in the hospital, so they could not help her son. I remembered passing a Red Cross Blood Transfusion Center a couple days before, so Ricky and I headed there so I could donate.  Sadly, my iron was too low and I was unable, but if the opportunity ever arises, I would like to try again.

In the meantime, I’ll encourage you to visit COPE’s website. Learn more about it. Donate if you can. 

Laos is an amazing place. It is a country of survivors. They are some of the happiest, most cheerful people I’ve ever met, despite everything they have gone through and are still suffering today. They are hard-workers; they care for their neighbors and their community. They are determined to thrive. Their pain and tragedy is real, but they are full of hope and love.

I think that’s something we can all strive to be. 

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