Friday, 27 March 2009

Learning to COPE

My new friends that work in the COPE centre with a few Lao beer.......

I like Vientiane, it is a charming small town, probably one of the smallest capitals in the world.
After having travelled around the North for a while it was good to go into shops, shops that sold things, things that I may want. Things that I mostly could not afford but at least I could touch.
One of my main reasons to come to Vientiane was to visit COPE and discover more about the great work these people are doing.

In 1961 JFK gave a famous speech to say that America wanted peace in Laos. To prove it, over a 9 year secret war, the US dropped more bombs in Laos than the Allies did during the Second World War. As America fought Vietnam it worried that Communism could extend through Laos and then down to Thailand. Certain areas, especially in the South, such as the Hoi Chi Min Trail were so heavily bombed that its people were obliterated. As this was a secret war there were no rules of engagement and civilian populations were massacred. Worryingly, one third of those bombs never exploded and every year thousands of people are injured or killed by the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance). COPE's work is to provide as many prostheses for the injured as possible and to raise awareness of their plight.

Sadly, in a country as poor as this, the value of scrap metal is undeniable........rising commodity prices mean that the scrap metal value of a long cluster bomb carrying case can feed a family for 2 or 3 months. But as the kids and adults try to lift the bombs they sometimes detonate or they step in one of the hundreds of 'bombies' that were spread from the main bomb.

I was lucky enough to be invited for a few beers with a group of prosthesis doctors and other staff from the clinic. It was a great afternoon, and I learned more about their work. They were all very welcoming. As Sommay, one of the staff, explained to me, every time they fit someone with an artificial leg they give them a new lease of life. The prosthesis may be considered slightly crude by Western standards but they are a lot better than having nothing to walk with.

One of other aims of COPE is to work with other organizations to try to ban cluster bombs. After what I have seen, I am ashamed that we ever built them and that they are still around.

Mr Buman was a source of everything you want to know in life. My favourite sentence was, 'when you learn english you speak, you then drink beer lao and all speak no listen'

There were other great people that loved to tell me things about their job, like Summay and Bi. They were so polite and made me feel embarrased for wearing a vest.

As amazed as I was by the work these doctors do, some of them trained abroad and could probably get a better life elsewhere, I was more stunned by the work of the UXO clearing units. These units are a mix of Laotians and former army engineers from several countries who criss cross Laos, especially the South, clearing these instruments of death.

The Cope Laos Website

One last thing I love about this town are their tuk tuks, a mixture of Harley Davidson and supermarket trolley, with drivers as mad as Hell Angels.

On a haze of Lao beer, and with the taste of dried smoked squid in my mouth, I am going to make my way South hoping that, as I have heard, everything is greener and the skies are blue........

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