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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

COPE

A little less than a month ago in Vientiane, our group of travelers visited a local NGO called COPE. COPE educates both locals and foreigners about the “Secret War,” a Vietnam War campaign by the US military to incapacitate Viet Minh and Viet Cong forces moving to South Vietnam by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail was a complex network of roads and paths that stretched from Northern Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia, eventually delivering communist forces and supplies in South Vietnam. A higher tonnage of bombs was dropped on the country of Laos than the Allies dropped in all of WWII. It is the most bombed country in the world.

COPE’s mission is to provide support and prosthetics for those who lost limbs or were otherwise injured as a result of the millions of bombs that remain in Laos, waiting to explode. Of the over 200 million bombs that the US dropped on the tiny Southeast Asian nation, 30% are unexploded. For decades, it has not been unusual for Lao people to accidentally stumble upon these bombs, setting them off. Farmers’ tills, cooking fires, and people trying to salvage bombs for their scrap metal are some of the most common catalysts for UXO (unexploded ordinates).

Despite the massive number of bombs that remain nestled in the soil of Laos, there is hope that one day very few people will be maimed or killed by hidden, unexploded bombs. Until 2008, 310 people were injured by UXO every year. 40% of them were children. Thankfully, that number has fallen drastically in recent years. Because of expanding education and training of bomb disposal professionals, only 42 people were hurt by UXO in 2015.

Before 2016, the US government gave about $2 million a year to the bomb disposal and recovery effort in Laos. In contrast, the US military spent $17 million dollars a day to fund the Secret War. In 2016, President Obama visited Laos and COPE. He pledged $90 million dollars over 3 years to bomb disposal. This is great news, but the journey ahead is a long one. It will take close to, if not more than a a hundred years, to clear all the bombs out of Laos.

Nate and Ethan