This article was published in Gaya Travel Magazine 8.2 Issue for my column,Black & White.
In this issue, Black & White highlights on the plight of the landmine victims consisting of innocent Lao citizens and salutes the officials at Cope Centre, Vientiane, who work hard to assist those victims to get back on their feet.
Despite its lush greenery and peacefully laidback environment, Lao has a disturbing thorn on its side: many parts of the country are still replete with Unexploded Ordinance, known as UXO or landmines. It is reported that there are about 7.58 million UXO still unfound and buried throughout the country. These undetonated UXO are part of the 58 million that the United States (US) military placed during the war against the Khmer Rouge.
Many had unfortunately succumbed to the danger of these UXO, some lucky to have survived. A research conducted had mapped the UXO locations, showing that they are largely present in the southern part of Laos. It would take another 100 years for Laos to be totally cleared of UXO. The clearing process is still in progress.
My son is dead! Dead!
“My son is dead! Dead!” screamed a distraught mother in the video. She lost her 6-year old son to the UXO. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched the recording of the interview with the parents of the poor child. The boy was out trying to eke his family’s income by following some adults to find scrap metal without realising the danger.
The adults had makeshift UXO detector to protect them but not the children. When the adults were searching in a distant area, suddenly there was a loud explosion that could be heard as far as the other village. Upon hearing, the villagers knew that someone must had fallen victim again to the UXO.
Three innocent young boys were found sprawled closed to each other; close to their almost charred bodies were the pieces of exploded UXO. Though one of them initially survived, he died eventually due to the undersupply of blood and oxygen at the local hospital. This is only but one of the many stories that can be heard about families losing their loved ones to UXO. This heart-wrenching reality is actually a fact of life in Laos.
If I weren’t poor, I wouldn’t have touched the bomb
On one evening, Ta who lives in Khammaoune Province in Southern Laos had gone to the jungle with his children to harvest scrap metal and bomb to be sold in order to feed the family. After walking for a while, he saw a cracked UXO bomb. He remembered how some other villagers had managed to take the TNT inside the bomb and used it to catch fish.
He dreamt of bombing the river so that he could catch large amount of fish, sell it at the market and buy groceries for his family. Little did he know that it was the last time he would still have his limbs. As he was retrieving the bomb, it suddenly exploded, causing severe injury to Ta’s hands and legs. Again, due to the under-supply of blood and oxygen at the local infirmary, Ta was left untreated for nine hours until they managed to get him to a town hospital. By then, the doctor had to amputate his arms and legs. He has now lost the ability to provide for his family, forcing them into deeper poverty.
The Cope Centre
Standing at the door, I was panting after walking a distance from my hostel to this Cope Centre. The signage did not help as I almost missed the centre as it is actually situated inside The Centre of Medical Rehabilitation. But the tiredness, sweat and walking went away as I walked into the centre and was awed by the display of the victims’ stories, prosthetic arms and legs and the UXO.
It started out about 16 years when Power International – an organisation that advances the well-being of people with disabilities in Africa and Asia – initiated the program with the Lao Ministry of Health, groups of non-Government organisations, World Vision and the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics. The effort provides UXO victims with the necessary care and support needed in using the orthotic and prosthetic devices.
The visitor centre gives insight on how COPE works by helping and assisting the victim of UXO and other accidents in Laos. Stories like the “Dead child” and Ta demonstrate the UXO victims’ and their families’ dire needs.
Whenever you are in Vientiane, spare some time to visit the COPE Centre, which is definitely an eye-opener. Your visit means a lot to these people and I am sure you can spare some change to donate to this centre as well.