You may recall my earlier post about how during nearly every journey there is a moment when you confront the Other, the Not You. My moment came last night.
We were in Vientiane, having returned from Luang Prabang earlier in the day, on the way to our hotel. We had stopped to visit the truly amazing Lao Textiles shop on our way and were debating whether we wanted to take a sunset stroll along the Mekong or just hang out at the hotel bar. As we turned into the drive, we saw the sign for the visitors’ center for an organization called COPE directly across the street from the hotel. Jeannie had read about this organization and wanted to visit. COPE provides prosthetics and physiotherapy primarily for people who have lost limbs when unexploded bombs (UXO) from the Indochina war go off.
We walked into the center to the sounds of a boisterous sports contest of some sort going on in the gymnasium. There was a sign on the building’s door – it was a sports center for disabled people. A couple of young men, each missing a leg, came across the yard on crutches. We entered the visitors’ center, and another world.
|Casing full of bomblets|
Most Americans of a certain age know something about the Vietnam War, but many do not know about the CIA’s “Secret War” in Laos. While the Viet Cong were moving to overthrow the puppet South Vietnamese government, the communist faction in Laos, called the Pathet Lao, were fighting a revolution against the Lao monarchy. The CIA’s interests were (1) to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, over which the Viet Cong supplied their troops in the south, and which ran through Laos, and (2) to prevent the Pathet Lao from installing a communist regime in Laos. The CIA’s secret war involved the US Air Force and the Hmong tribesman of northern Laos, who were persuaded to oppose the Pathet Lao. The USAF dropped an estimated 2 million tons of bombs on Laos during the war, including 288 million cluster bombs, between 1964 and 1973. The USAF launched nearly 580,000 sorties (bombing raids) over this period, which works out to an average of one bombing raid every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. There is a map of Laos on the wall in the center. From USAF records, they have placed a small red dot on each bombing raid target. From the northeastern highlands, where the Pathet Lao were based, through the eastern part of Champassak – basically the route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – is solid red. Of all this ordnance dropped on Laos, about 30% did not explode and remained, and still remains, to cause future death and suffering.
As if this weren’t dangerous enough, the poor of Laos, often children, scavenge for scrap metal to make a living. They also use the scrap metal from this ordnance to make household utensils. One of the displays in the COPE center is a life-size replica of a Laotian village hut. The sign outside tells you that every metal object inside but two are made from pieces of ordnance, and challenges you to find the two. I couldn’t. Cooking pots, brackets, hoes, hand tools – more things than you can imagine – are made into household items by resourceful hands. Even though children are constantly warned against handling metal they find, the fact that such stuff ends up in their houses in innocuous usage makes them less afraid.
After our tour, which included a well-made video that profiled one young amputee, we went outside to the Karma Café, which sells ice cream and drinks. We recognized the CEO of COPE sitting at the small bar, and struck up a conversation with her about the organization. She graciously stayed with us for half an hour after the place closed. After a slow start, they now run the organization on about $500,000 per year that they reliably get from several sources. There are still about 300 cases a year of new injury from UXO.
In yesterday’s Vientiane Times there is a story with the headline, “Bulldozer driver nearly blows up village.” It relates that a bulldozer driver, excavating for a road, ran his blade several times into an object that he suddenly realized was a UXO. When a nearby agency team came by to investigate, they identified it as an American-made 2000-pound bomb. They told the driver that if it had exploded - and it was a miracle that it hadn’t - it would have destroyed everything within a two-kilometer radius, including a Buddhist temple.
The horror, indeed.