A tuk-tuk will cost about 50,000 kip each way from the centre of the city. We hired a motorbike for 24 hours for 60,000 kip and rode to COPE.
A FREE museum where you can learn about ‘The Secret War’ that America conducted against Laos a few decades ago. You also learn about the type of bombs that still remain in the country, hindering economic progress, and read/watch/listen to stories about people who have lost limbs and livelihoods thanks to these horrible bombs.
Boulevard Khouvieng, Vientiane, Laos
View COPE Visitor Centre in a larger map
We first visited COPE in Vientiane a couple of months ago. It’s a really awesome project that helps Laotians who have been affected by unexploded ordinance (known as UXO) bombs or born with a physical disability such as missing limbs or clubfoot. The center makes prosthetic limbs and has a rehabilitation center to assist with mobility. They also have a nice little museum, free to the public, to educate people about the bombs that affected Laos during the Vietnam War, and that still affect Laotians today.
During the Vietnam War, the Americans defied the International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos that they signed in 1962 in Geneva, and bombed Laos consistently for NINE YEARS in an effort to block North Vietnam from sending supplies to South Vietnam using the famed Ho Chi Minh Road. Despite Laos being a ‘neutral country,’ American secretly bombed the country in fear of communism, and even today millions of unexploded bombs remain. In the rice fields, the jungles, in the villages, along the roads etc. The bombs that were mainly used were ‘cluster bombs,’ a large container that would fall apart in the air and release thousands of ‘bombies’ that looked like a tennis ball but were built with gunpowder and hundreds of steel ball bearings that exploded when spun a certain way. Researchers estimate somewhere between 10-30% of these bombs didn’t explode on impact during the war, so these are the ones that remain on the ground in Laos, continuing to maim and kill children, and farmers plowing their fields.
Really sad considering this ‘Secret War’ against Laos was not even known for years after, and despite efforts to clear the country of bombs, something like 70 million unexploded bombs are still estimated to remain in the rural areas. Millions!!! The museum was very informative, and it explained that a lot of people in rural villages will risk their lives to find these bombs and pull them apart to either use the gunpowder inside or to sell the scrap metal. A trade that is very profitable for these poor villagers.
There were examples of everyday household tools that were made from UXO scrap metal, from spoons, pots, stoves, troughs, supports for houses, anything you can think of, the locals have already made considering they have been living with these bombs in their backyards for decades. We saw a few spoons made from UXO metal on sale at night markets in Luang Prabang, but the museum is against tourists purchasing these, as it encourages sellers to continue buying them from the villagers who will continue to put their lives at risk!
Anyway, we decided to come back, two months on, as we remembered that we didn’t have time to watch the free documentaries last time. We chose to watch an Australian Broadcasting production called Bomb Harvest, and a Canadian production from 2001 called Bombies.
Bomb Harvest followed an Australian ex-solider who now lives in Laos and helps clear UXOs by training locals. Despite the appalling subject matter, the main dude, Laith Stevens, was humorous and entertaining to both his students and the camera. Really informative and thought provoking at times. Especially the re-enactments involving Lao children.
Bombies was an earlier production and the footage was very dated, though still informative. The main purpose of this film was to highlight that Bombies are still being made, and still being used today in war torn countries! It got quite political and emotional at times with interviews with various people affected by the situation; the founder of MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace prize, Rae McGrat, an interview with journalist, Fred Branfman, who discovered that secrets bombs were being dropped in Laos, an interview with the late Marv Davidov, who for decades had been campaigning against bomb manufacturing company, Honeywell, and an interview with an American pilot who dropped bombs and later returned to Laos to supply medical supplies. There were some opinions expressed in the film that America does have some sort of responsibility to help clear the bombs in Laos in order for the country to develop.
Most confronting was the story of the Laotian man whose family hid in a cave with 200 other people for three years. When he returned from hunting one day, he realised that the cave had been bombed. The Americans fired four bombs into the cave, three missed but the last exploded inside killing everyone inside including this man’s wife and children. Even now, decades on, he still finds bone fragments coming out of the soil when he returns to pay his respects to the dead.
COPE is a very good way to spend an afternoon in Vientiane. It’s completely free, has a store where you can buy locally made knick-knacks, a small cinema room where you can choose a doco, and a well thought out museum with some very confronting photos and items. It also has very cold air-conditioning if you need to get away from the heat. I wouldn’t recommend it to very young children, but children over ten years old would probably understand the situation and get more out of it.