COPE, Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, is an incredible place doing great work.
We recently headed back to Laos to get a new Visa for Thailand and spend more time with some fantastic friends we met on our last visit. We took our time exploring Vientiane, this time, and visited COPE’s Visitor Center. While we had a truly wonderful time in Laos, the most significant point of the trip felt like going to COPE, although perhaps not the most fun.
COPE exists to help Laotians who have disabilities, either from injuries due to bombs exploding, accidents or genetic defects. They provide prosthetics or mobility devices (that they make), occupational therapy, education to their staff and information to the community. They were founded in 1997 and people will travel for days to make use of their extensive, life-altering services.
We biked to the Visitor Center and were met by statues at the entrance made from 500kgs of bomb debris. We heard the Visitor Center was a great place for information and were not disappointed. It hosted large displays and information on the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance), from the “Secret War”, 1950s-70s. I had been blissfully unaware of this war until our last trip, when I saw vendors selling bracelets from the bombs’ aluminum, at the night market. My next education was from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, when he went to Laos.
Here, I received a more formal education from the displays and a figure sheet that provided truly sad statistics about the UXO’s and their impact. Copied from their FACT sheet:
“Laos PDR is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history
Over 2 million tons of ordinances were dropped on Lao PDR during the Vietnam War between 1964-1973
Up to 30% failed to detonate and remained in Laos PDR after the war
Approximately 80 million unexploded bombes remained throughout the country after the war
More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO incidents in the post-war period 1974-2011
Today, approximately 100 new causalities still occur annually”
The figures were staggering. The 30% fail rate, has given the bombing an extended legacy, leaving them as terrible easter eggs to be found by villagers for the last 40 years. Tasks like farming, collecting materials in the forests or cooking (from the ground getting warm) can detonate a bomb.
Clearing UXOs must be done manually, by trained! professionals, of which there are about 1000 in the country. However, collecting the UXOs for their scrap metal is a lucrative trade for some villagers. It accounts for half of the accidents with UXOs, as primitive metal detectors are used. Likewise, children imitating adults and collecting, has led to more injuries with children. A video at the Center had a family retelling the tale of losing their child to a bomb exploding. It was devastating to watch.
I diligently went through the exhibits, taking photos of every sign, knowing I would want to spread the word of COPE. With the sadness of the UXOs, the great work of COPE is not lost and pictures of some of the people they have helped also decorate the walls. They are focused on serving people and have an amazing attitude about the work they do. The Visitor Center (and bathroom) were decorated with used prosthetics, in creative displays (legs wear out about every 2 years). Likewise, postcards in the gift shop had silly cartoons describing what they do and a donation amount to further COPE’s cause.
Spoiler alert: Family, Merry Christmas! (Don’t worry, some gifts will be sent too.)
Going to the Visitor Center is time well spent for the amazing education provided. We purchased a few things in the gift shop and then had some great ice cream in their Karma Cafe, hey, all in the name of charity!
In Anthony Bourdain’s show on Laos, he spoke of the generosity and kindness of the Lao people. We’ve heard this repeated by others too and even that night, we stumbled upon the grand opening of a restaurant. We were welcomed as guests and treated to free beer, food, and their incredible spirit. The beauty of the people has made us fall in love with Laos and always want to hurry back.
COPE is definitely a must see while in Vientiane. The lessons learned are important and the work is inspiring. Perhaps not the funnest place to visit but 100% worth it. If you would like to donate, their website has various price points, from $10 for a developmental toy for a child, on up to full treatments.