Learning to COPE!
The COPE Centre in Vientiane was not on the top of my list of attractions to visit in Laos. In fact, I had never heard of it before arriving in Vientiane. The Laos PDR capital is often just seen as a short visa stop over for many travellers heading towards Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. But, Vientiane and Laos PDR has its own story to tell. Like many other backpackers I was in Vientiane just for a visa. I had never really had an intention of visiting Laos, as it did not seem to come up on my research as a ‘must-see’ destination. Yet here I found myself in Vientiane for a couple of days really enjoying the laid back atmosphere, good food, coffee, friendly people and looking for interesting sights to fill my time. The guest house I was staying at recommended visiting COPE (Centre of Medical Rehabilitation – CMR).
Originally set up in 1997 by the Ministry of Health of Laos and a group of non-Government organisations including POWER, World Vision and the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthopaedics. Today the centre operates as a local non-profit organisation providing rehabilitation and orthopaedic prosthesis for local Laos people, affected by the millions of unexploded ordinances (UXO’s), still left in the country and an often forgotten legacy of the Vietnam War. COPE is fairly easy to find if you’re walking or riding a bicycle and is located on Khou Vieng Road, (the road that runs past the main Vientiane bus station), and opposite the Green Park Hotel. During my visit I arrived at an unassuming, old, colonial style hospital, where there were clear signs pointing to the visitors centre. Inside I found a room with displays of UXO’s, home-made prosthetic legs (some for children as young as one or two), pictures & stories of real life victims and a separate room showing documentaries about the past and present situation for the people of Laos.
The Vietnam War has left a deep scar on the whole of South-East Asia, environmentally, socially and politically. Laos unfortunately is one of its biggest, innocent victims. It should be noted that Laos stands today as one of the most bombed countries in the world, despite never actually declaring war on any other country. Its crime? Wanting to remain neutral in its neighbour’s conflict with the world’s largest militarized nation – the United States of America. Unfortunately, the infamous Ho-chi Min trail ran along the border into Laos and became a hot-bed of the conflict. It also did not help that under the advice of Henry Kissinger, the then Secretary of State for the Nixon administration, conducted secret carpet bombing missions (known as ‘Operation Menu’) across the eastern fronts of Laos and Cambodia. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for people on the ground. Having spent a few months volunteering with Hill tribe people in Thailand, you get a sense of the simplicity of rural life. After a few weeks of living with the rhythm of nature, even the sound of a vehicle is disruptive to village life – never mind an air raid of millions of exploding bombs!
The documentaries at the COPE centre are really good at explaining the overall impact on the Laotian people. The first thing that struck me when visiting COPE, was how humble and yet positive the atmosphere of the centre was. Amazingly so, because of the enormity of the situation they face. The second thing that struck me was the reaction of my fellow travellers visiting the centre. I’ll never forget a young, American, female backpacker, literally bursting into tears after spending time talking to COPE volunteers about what had happened to Laos during the Vietnam War. ‘Nobody told us, we did not know this had happened,’ she claimed. It was at that moment that it really struck me how important the work at COPE was, and how powerful the awareness was that they were creating. No one leaves the COPE centre quite the same! It can only be a true testament to the power of healing and understanding, that is so indicative of Buddhist countries.
So why visit? COPE not only provides awareness about UXO’s, they are keen advocates for banning cluster bombs world-wide but, also provide life line medical services to people who cannot afford medical care. This medical care includes supplying prosthetic limbs, physiotherapy and rehabilitation for the poor.
The centre’s long term goal is to become a locally-staffed organisation that covers the cost of mobility devices and rehabilitation for people in Laos, who cannot afford it. This includes training of staff and developing a strong network of clinics through-out the country, to insure that people with disabilities can access care. COPE visitors centre is free to visit, but donations are accepted. Even just having a cup of coffee at the centre’s cafe goes a long way to help support the organisation!
Did you know?
Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents occur every year in Lao PDR.
Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.
2 million tons
Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.
Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.
Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.
Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode.
Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009.
For more information about COPE & UXO statistics please refer to the COPE website: