As an infrequent museum-goer it was quite a surprise to find myself in a permanent exhibition for hours when I had originally planned to stop off for a quick look around. It might have been the impressive video testimonies of victims or the original bomb shelves on display but what is certain is that the COPE Visitor Centre definitely succeeded in expressing the moving stories that stem from the mass bombings during the Vietnam war.
Over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war between 1964 and 1973, representing as many as 270 million bombs. Unfortunately, 30% failed to detonate and remained in Laos after the war. More than 20,000 people were killed or seriously injured in the post-war period 1974 – 2011. COPE is a local organization that trains local staff in the manufacture of prosthetics, orthotics and related rehabilitation activities in order to support victims of so called UXOs or UneXploded Ordnances, locally better known as ‘bombies’.
I met Soksai, currently the operational manager of COPE. “After graduating I really wanted to help people with disabilities derived from bombings. I have seen a lot of accidents happen, even within my family.” Soksai started as a marketing assistant in 2008, then worked as prosthetist assistant in 2011 to support the prosthetic mentor by organizing prosthetic & orthotic training workshops for Lao local prosthetist for about a year until he became the operational manager of the COPE Centre in Vientiane.
The exhibition in the Cope Visitor Centre provides great insight into the complexity of the problem around UXOs and the activities Cope undertake. It is more than just providing victims with help: it’s a bigger challenge to educate about the dangers of bombies for those in need. With true survivor stories, uncleared bombs and lots of sample prosthetics at the Centre there is enough to see that will even have an impact on the kids.
Soksai told me that most visitors are shocked after their visit. They were not aware of the the size of the problem that still exists today. Enthralled by victims’ stories, most visitors buy some stuff from the sponsored shop or leave a small donation after their visit. Some people even go beyond that point. Soksai explains “We had one visitor from Australia who found new inspiration here and started to turn used prosthetics into art. By selling the objects she is now raising funds and awareness for us. And like yourself, there were also cyclists who have raised funds for us before.” (See the COPE website for more examples)
The Visitor Centre takes just a small part of the total grounds of COPE. When Soksai showed me around we had chance to see the wheelchair production site, the prosthetic production site and the rehabilitation center where we were faced with actual victims as well. If the exhibition didn’t already then facing victims who are missing a leg was my final wake-up call: the work being done at COPE is absolutely vital! Soksai explains: “with only $200 we can successfully threat one victim with a missing leg, that includes material, training, accommodation and all the food”.
See how you can help and when in Vientiane, make sure you visit COPE Centre. The free exhibition including a guided English tour leaves plenty of chance to make a small donation after your visit. It is located only 1 km south of the city centre. Please visit the COPE website for the most accurate hours and directions.