My long long wait at the consulate this morning ( more of which to come) was by anyone’s standards awful, sitting around for 2 and a half hours to hand in some papers and another hour and a bit to pay for the privilege made me a little grumpy.
But boy did I give myself a lesson in perspective this afternoon.
Without a small one in tow I was able to visit a place that I wanted to see last time round but was unable to due to point blank refusal and tiredness of said small person.
COPE visitors centre is located within the grounds of the Vientiane rehabilitation centre. COPE is a non profit organisation that, amongst other things, provides prosthetic limbs and support for victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos. The fact that this organisation is so desperately needed is a shame on the western world.
Now while I don’t have the best grasp of recent history I do credit myself with a little knowledge of the Vietnam war. I’ve been to the movies. But what I learned recently was both surprising and shocking. This afternoon reduced me to teary mess.
Now what has the Vietnam war got to do with Laos ? It’s a different country which was neutral and not directly involved in the war. Yes, it borders Vietnam, but it wasn’t involved was it?
Horribly the answer to that question is an emphatic yes. But not through its own choice. The Vietnamese troops used Laos as a supply corridor and as such it was considered by the US army as an ally and therefore a legitimate target. Despite agreements made and ratified by the Geneva convention the US army dropped more bombs on Laos between the years 1964 and 1973 than were used by all troops combined in the Second World War. It is estimated ( using the US army’s own statistics ) that more than 2 million tons of ordinance were dropped on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. A country that wasn’t supposed to be involved in the war.
The US army used the reasoning that they were destroying the supply lines of the Vietnamese troops to justify the bombing in what they called ‘ the other theatre’. Even if it were only that it would be atrocious, what I learned today is that If a plane missed its designated target in Vietnam it was under orders to use one of the ‘free drop zones’ in the north of Laos to divest itself of its payload as it was unsafe for it to land fully loaded.
It is estimated that around 70% of these bombs detonated as they should have at the time, which means that around 30% didn’t. 30% of unexploded cluster bombs still on the ground. That’s an approximate 80 million explosives primed and ready to explode when they are discovered. EIGHTY MILLION.
Since the end of the war ( that Laos was NOT in ) over 20,000 people have been killed. Over 8,000 of those were children.
It has been dubbed ‘The secret war’ as many of these details have only come to light in the west in last 20 years.
The legacy of these unconscionable acts is that 1/3 of the land mass of Laos is deemed to be unsafe due to the high presence of UXO. 1/3 of the landmass. That is a HUGE amount of land that could potentially kill you. As over 70 % of the population is dependent on farming not just as a living, but to feed their families the amount of families that risk death and disability by the simple act of ploughing a field, or lighting a fire to cook is phenomenal.
The trade in scrap metal is big business in Laos, many people supplement their small incomes by selling scrap metal to foundries. Due to the vast amounts of ordinance dropped during the war there are a lot of metal fragments to be found in the overgrown wilderness. It was this that reduced me to a watery mess this afternoon as I watched the story, told just a few years ago, of a small boy who went out looking for scrap with his friends so that he could afford to buy a present for his mothers birthday.
Both of his friends died instantly when they found an unexploded cluster bomb. Hamm, the little boy in question, was badly injured but none of the hospitals nearby had any supplies that could help him and he died in agony several hours later. He was 9. The same age as my little girl.
Laos is an extremely poor developing nation, something that is easy to forget when sitting in a terrace bar in the capital city, and there just isn’t the money available to clear the huge swathes of contaminated land. 50 years after the end of he war and just 1% of the land has been declared safe. Until 100% of this land has been cleared the economic and social development of this country is effectively stalled.
There are many organisations that are trying their best to do this and deal with the fallout, but without funding there is little that can be done.
I will add some links at the bottom of this post and if you feel so inclined then please donate if you can. If you can’t then at least spread the word so more people can know what is happening today, now, because of a 50 year old conflict that continues to claim innocent victims ruin the lives of generations.
Jer Gan Mài