This past October marked my 24th birthday; most people celebrate through drinks and desserts with friends. I spent mine in sunny Vientiane, Laos celebrating my physical growth with personal growth by visiting two non-government organizations (NGOs) focused in Laos. The first of these was the COPE Visitor Centre: Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise.
For those readers who have not had the opportunity to visit Laos, you should definitely add this beautiful country to your South East Asian adventures. Yet, underneath this rural beauty, lies an unpredictable danger.
During the Vietnam War, approximately 270 million cluster bombs were dropped into Laos. A cluster bomb is really a metal shell with many smaller bombs inside; when dropped, the smaller bombs disperse in order to create maximum damage. Besides the ethical issues surrounding the use of bombs, the larger problem is that an estimated 30 percent of bombs dropped into Lao never actually detonated. These bombs are very sensitive, becoming triggered with the slightest disturbance, and have caused many injuries, even today. Large portions of Laos have still not been cleared for safety and these bombs continue to become more unstable.
COPE works with the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation to provide prosthetics to those affected by these undetonated devices who cannot afford medical treatment. Moreover, COPE custom designs prosthetics to fit the occupation and living environment of its patients. Since many injured are poor farmers, COPE designs prosthetics that can be used effectively with the terrain. Stiff prosthetics or normal wheelchairs are not compatible with the rocky terrain; general prosthetics found in the medical community are not always the best fit.
COPE also strives to educate the world to the ethical and tangible problems that arise from the use of cluster bombs. Several countries have already signed into the initiative to stop the use of cluster bombs as a means of weaponry (sadly, the United States has not yet agreed to sign).
The Visitor Centre is free and quite easy to get to. Most tuk tuk drivers know the place well and should have no trouble dropping you off. Once there, you can learn more about the impacts that cluster bombs have had in Laos by seeing real bombs and prosthetics and watching interviews with families who have lost loved ones.
COPE offers its visitors two really great experiences. The first is the ability to test out different prosthetics as well as to try different hands-on activities to understand how those who have lost limbs have to adapt to a new life.
The second is a chance to understand a bit more on rural Laos. The Centre houses a replica of a typical family home of rural Laos. Inside, a visitor can truly understand the influence these bombs have had within the last several decades; almost all of the household items are made using scrap metal from bombs. This makes the bombs both valuable and increasingly dangerous.
If you find yourself in Vientiane, Laos head over to COPE and check out the exhibit for yourself. The entire experience will give you some great cultural insight into this beautiful part of the world.
For more information or cluster bombs, check out their website (http://copelaos.org/visit.php)