Helping People Cope.

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April 1st 2011
Published: April 2nd 2011
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The United States was never officially at war with Laos. Yet between 1964 and 1973 the USA dropped two million tons of bombs on this beautiful, largely rural country. Around 30% of these bombs failed to detonate leaving Laos liberally littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO).

Imagine: You wake in the morning, and rubbing sleep from your eyes, you stumble to make your morning cuppa. Except in Laos there is no running water and no electric kettle; you heat water on a wood fire, squatting on your haunches, literally watching the pot boil, smoke and steam wafting over your face. On the 10th of May last year, Ms. Thang was doing just this, as she must have done for the greater part of her thirty-eight years. Except Ms. Thang had no way of knowing there was a bomb hidden underneath her. A morning like every other except the heat of the fire warmed up the ground and caused the hidden bomb to explode; Ms. Thang was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel and her fifteen year old daughter who was standing nearby received serious injury to her left leg and foot. Neighbours took them to the district hospital but their injuries were too serious to be treated there, so they were taken to the provincial hospital - even so, small pieces of shrapnel still remain in their bodies.

Imagine: You are fifteen years old, have just finished your exams and head nervously off to school with a couple of friends to pick up your results. An anti-climax because your results haven't been posted but disapointment turns to laughter as you clown around on the way home. Stopping in the bushes for a pee you find something. You're not sure what it is, but your mates pick it up, throw it around a little; and not wanting to be left out, you do the same and bang the balls together. At that moment the 'bombie' explodes. You loose the sight of both eyes and both arms just below the elbow.

Imagine: Now you are a nine year old called Hamm, with bright eyes and a big smile. You follow a group of adults into the woods. You've seen them often and seen the money they make. You want to help your family and it seems so easy. Many adults scavenge for scrap metal. There is a healthy trade in scap metal - all sorts of items are made from UXO casings - knives, axes, rice-cookers, belt-buckles, buckets. Adults know the risks, but they are so poor they consider the risk worthwhile. In 2008 140 kilos of scrap metal had a value of 280,000 kip. Some scrap collectors could earn four times the average monthly salary. Hamm doesn't know all this, he doesn't know what a 'bombie' is, doesn't know it could be dangerous. A DVD in a mock-up of his parents shop in the Cope Visitor Centre relays his story. In the film his mother buries her face in a towel and sobs. His father tells that this was Hamm's first time following the adults with metal detectors. The adults laid the bombies aside, Hamm and his friends are curious. They forget what they've been told about UXO, they just see something that looks like a cow-bell, or a lamp and pick it up, check it out, play with it. The bombie exploded and Hamm died - not immediately. Villagers ran to tell his parents he'd been injured. His intestines were coming out of a hole in his side. His parents hired a truck to take him to hospital, but there was no blood and no oxygen. At the second hospital, it was the same story. They couldn't make it to a third hospital and the driver didn't want Hamm to die in his truck so his parents took him home. Imagine - you are a nine year old boy called Hamm, eager, curious, full of life - except there is no more life.

There was no war, but every day ordinary people in Laos live with this danger. Twelve thousand people have been injured by UXO (many of them children) since the war ended. Cope helps people cope; and not only victims of UXO. Cope rehabilitates victims of traffic accidents, people with birth defects (polio, cerebral palsy, club feet) and people with illnesses such as leprosy. Cope makes artificial limbs, trains local staff in regional centres as occupational and physiotherapists - but much more than this Cope gives people dignity, independence, a sense of pride and a place in the community.

To some degree Cope gives people their lives back - probably because of this the Visitor Centre, in spite of the subject matter, is an inspiring, positive place. The information is presented in a straight forward manner, the emphasis is on helping people lead a better life. The fifteen year old boy injured on his birthday is now a nineteen year old, ambassador for Cope.


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