President Obama this week, became the first U.S. President to visit the tiny landlocked nation of Laos.
The Communist nation has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed nation per capita in world history. As the Viet Cong soldiers crossed the boarder to escape the carpet bombing of North Vietnam, the U.S. heavy bombers followed them into neutral Laos, killing and maiming thousands of Laotian civilians.
In preparing to travel for the first time to the country of Laos-a place even many geography teachers may find difficult to find on a blank world map, I used my TripAdvisor App to take a look at what to see in Vientiane, the nation’s sleepy capital on the Laos/Thailand boarder.
Every description mentions many of the typical things one would expect to see in Southeast Asia: Buddhist temples, statues, monasteries, marketplaces, etc. One particularly strong recommendation pointed to a visitor center near the center of town known as COPE. We would soon discover that COPE stood for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, an umbrella organization that does much more than welcome curious visitors.
Formed in 1997, COPE focuses primarily on providing care to individuals injured by UXO-or unexploded ordinance. Defined, UXOs are ‘explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired, dropped, launched or projected, and still pose a risk of exploding’. In the country of Laos, we learned 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).
The visitor center at COPE ended up being one of the highlights of our brief time in Laos because it represented to me a whole chapter I missed when reading a book-I thought I knew plenty about the US mission in Vietnam and the devastation to both sides, but Laos was not in the war officially.
From our tour, and watching a short film on the subject, we learned that approximately 300 new casualties a year come from unexploded ordinance, namely cluster bombs-2 millions pounds worth the US dropped on Laos from 1964 to 1973. With a success rate of 70%, the number of failed submunitions (cluster bombs) hiding in rivers, under a few inches of soil or laying at the edge of a farmer’s field in Laos is potentially and roughly tens of millions, each capable of death, dismemberment and blindness.
After looking at all the exhibits and watching the film, we made a donation and headed towards the door. As we were leaving a young Laotian man in his early twenties greeted us and identified himself as, Peter Kim, a volunteer at the center. I instantly realized he was blind by the physical damage to his eyes. He politely asked us if we enjoyed our visit and wanted to know from where we were visiting. Before I could answer, my son chirped that we lived in China, but I added that we were Americans. I studied his face closely for any change or hint of anger and there was none. He continued his friendly questioning for a few more minutes and we thanked him for a great lesson. I admitted to him that I had really known nothing about the bombing campaign in Laos, but promised to let my students know his story in future lessons.
As we said our good-byes, I wanted to shake his hand to as if somehow apologize for what had happened to him and let him know I was sorry more Americans, even a history teacher, were largely ignorant on this sad and enduring legacy of war, but I couldn’t. It was only then I realized he no longer had hands to shake.
Before leaving the country, President Obama announced that the U.S. would spend an additional $90 million dollars to continue the clean up of UXO and the millions of deadly cluster bombs still left scattered across the Laotian countryside, waiting to be discovered one way or another.
You can visit COPE online and consider a donation or at least an education by visiting their website at http://www.copelaos.org/visit.php