I was going to title this article simply by what it’s actually about — The COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Laos — but how many of you would’ve clicked on it knowing it was a post about people getting their limbs blown off and the organization that helps them…well, cope?
It’s still possible to buy an artificial leg or arm if that’s what you’ve come for — and I encourage you to do so — the only caveat is that it gets donated to someone who desperately needs it. I’ll tell you how at the end of the page.
COPE Visitor Centre, Vientiane, Laos
Laos holds the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the world. According to Legacies of War, more than 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on the country by the U.S. from 1964 to 1979 during some 580,000 bombing missions.
That’s the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.
Many of those bombing missions let loose so-called cluster bombs — a larger missile that opens up mid-flight, ejecting often hundreds of smaller submunitions with the sole purpose to maim or kill.
The thing is, some 40-odd years after the war ended, those cluster bombs are still maiming and killing. Up to 30% of the devices never exploded upon impact, and now farmers tending their fields or children getting up to what children get up to run the risk of losing life or limb.
The sculpture at the entrance to the centre is the work of artist Anousone Vong Aphay, who created it from 500 kilograms of UXO (unexploded ordnances) including those deadly cluster bombs.
The COPE Visitor Centre is designed to educate visitors about the lethal remnants of the war, the risks associated with touching UXO that dots the country’s landscape, and the rehabilitation work the organization engages in to aid those who’ve been injured from those bombs.
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the visitor centre is the haunting replica of a cluster bomb falling to the ground.
Scattered throughout the COPE Visitor Centre are prosthetic arms and other artificial limbs that are made possible by donations to the centre.
The sheer number of used artificial legs hanging from the ceiling is a grim symbol of just how many lives unexploded bombs in Laos affect. I suspected the limbs juxtaposed so closely to the cluster bombs dangling near the entrance were the work of a skillful artist sharing a sombre metaphor — each bomb is one limb lost, each bomb is one life drastically changed forever.
The Bomb Salvage Subculture
The number of cluster bombs (or the innocuous sounding “bombies” as the Lao people are apt to call them) has given birth to an entire cottage industry — the collection of scrap bomb metal for resale. Although Laos outlawed the sale of bulk metal to businesses keen to recycle the metals, that hasn’t curbed folks in rural areas from scavenging for bombies to reuse or repurpose.
In many markets throughout the country, it’s often a matter of minutes before you happen upon a vendor hawking keychains, cutlery, or bracelets crafted from bomb casings. Locals who unearth larger missles and bomb casings can frequently sell them as decoration to hotels and restaurants. In a country where the minimum wage is 900,000 KIP (about $110 USD) per month, a side gig procuring UXO can make huge inroads in breaking the poverty cycle.
The danger that familiarity with bombs breeds is passed onto those who are most vulnerable — the country’s children. Kids out exploring see an object with potential value, and in an eagerness to bring it back home, often forget about the risks. The walls of the centre are lined with stories of children who bore the cost of those lapses.
If you want to get a better idea of the work that COPE does, and the meaningful change the organization creates in the lives of those in need, take a look at the video below. It’s the same video I watched at the COPE Visitor Centre the day I visited. It might help to have some Kleenex handy.
Now, about that leg…
The COPE Visitor Centre offers a pretty unique fundraising option — instead of just soliciting for donations, the Donate Page of their website lists what your donation actually buys. It’s $75 USD for an artificial leg, and $150 for an artificial arm. Smaller donations go toward toys for kids with developmental challenges, and food for those unable to work due to contact with cluster bombs.
The good news is you don’t even need to visit Laos to purchase a limb for someone in need, and depending upon your home country, donations are tax-deductible.
Cope Visitor Centre Travel Tips
Opening Hours: open daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM
Admission Price: free of charge
Address: Boulevard Khouvieng, Vientiane, Laos
Phone Number: +856 21 218 427
How to Get There
If you’re in Vientiane, you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the centre.