Finding my feet in Vientiane COPE Center

Fact: Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the whole world.

Between 1964 to 1973, the United States of America waged a secret war against Laos. They dropped 270 million cluster bombs in the span of 9 years, 80 million of which did not detonate. You might be wondering: why? What’s the reason behind this violence?

To answer that question, look at a world map and find Laos. It’s right there, below China and above Thailand. See how Laos shares a border with Vietnam? Vietnam, who was at war with the United States of America. Back then, the USA was running a CIA operation that planned on destroying North Vietnam’s supply routes along the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail, a way to stop the Viet Cong and to wipe out their resources.

Laos was left scarred. Not just the country, but its people too.

Imagine waking up to a normal day, where you’re planning on walking to school or to work. You woke up late and you suddenly take a detour. You’ve heard of this shortcut from a friend and despite warning bells ringing in your head, you take the shortcut.

And then you step on a scrap metal. At least it looked that way.

Everything is in fast forward motion: your foot hits the metal, a booming sound goes off, a thick cloud of dust chokes your lungs.

Drip, drip, drip.

What’s that?

You look down.

Your foot is gone.

You can’t feel anything, can’t hear anything.

But you see blood everywhere.

— — —

This is where the Laotian NGO named Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) comes in. It is a nationally-managed free service that provides the Lao people with prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation programs. Their Vientiane center has a small museum, showing snippets of Laos history, what COPE is all about, and some of the survivors’ stories.

It’s a small museum but with a big impact. You’ll probably think, oh it’s strangely normal:  brochures explaining COPE’s advocacy, colourful souvenir items, memoirs and history books, national flags on the wall representing donors from around the world. Just another museum to tack on your growing list of museums.

The exhibition then takes you on a journey, from the moment the bombs drop to the events that spiral after. A chandelier of falling bomb shells and recorded sounds of bombs going off. Fact sheets, blurry black and white video clips, tattered newspaper headlines and photos.

It’s jarring and real.

You follow a series of footsteps – but instead of a pair, just one foot and the outline of a crutch. It leads you to reading materials and supporting multimedia, encouraging you to participate and experience what it’s like to lose a limb. There’s a makeshift bridge that asks you to cross on one leg, an assembly center with a guide on how to create a prosthetic limb, a perspective mirror that shows you how they teach the survivors to overcome the feeling of a phantom limb.

At the center of it all: a hanging art piece of prosthetic limbs, confronting you with the ugly reality of what the secret war has done to Laos.

— — —

Before I flew to Laos, I already knew how it is the most heavily bombed country in the world. I already knew how there are still a lot of bombs left lying around – about how you need to avoid places that are clearly marked as dangerous, to keep an eye out for bombs disguised as something else, to be more mindful than necessary.

To say I was very curious was an understatement since I’ve always been fascinated by history. This was the extra push I needed to make that stop at Vientiane, to visit COPE and learn more about Laos and the secret war.

I’m not ashamed to say that I ended up crying in the museum, a personal first. To be honest, I’ve never really thought about the power of my body until I was at COPE. How my fully functioning body contributes to the quality of life I have – from the mundane such as typing this sentence to the exciting such as traveling solo around Southeast Asia.

But most importantly, it’s this: The way it has carried me to where I am today and how it will carry me to where I will be tomorrow. Someone physically, mentally, emotionally whole, despite whatever trivial problems I’m currently stressing over.

There were stories and photos of survivors – where they were when the bomb went off, what they were doing at that exact moment, how they were after the accident. These people didn’t deserve to be used as a pawn and here they are, so many decades after, still reeling from a war they weren’t supposed to be a part of.

Reading about the survivors further drove home the point of how resilient you could and should be in challenging times. Some, if not most of them, did their best to go back to normalcy despite their disability. Their broken limbs did not necessarily equate to a broken spirit.

And that’s the bittersweet, humbling beauty of going to COPE: you have more, so much more, than these survivors.

You, a foreigner, with the physical and financial capacity to cross miles and miles of land and sea, standing with your perfectly healthy and wholly intact body, in an airconditioned museum, reading and hearing the story of these people who struggled more than you’ve ever struggled in your sheltered, privileged life.

If that doesn’t give you perspective, I don’t know what else will.

If you’re interested in touring the exhibit or you want to learn more on how you can donate or volunteer, visit http://www.copelaos.org/.

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