Laos, the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world, is still suffering after the Vietnam War. There are more unexploded ordinances (UXO) leftover in Laos than there are people, and the poor infrastructure and rough terrain make it difficult to remove bombs. The COPE Center, an NGO based in Vientiane, does a lot of work on UXO removal and providing prosthetic limbs to those who have been injured in explosions. A visit to the informative and heartbreaking COPE Visitor's Center in Vientiane is a worthwhile way to spend an hour or so during your visit to the Laotian capital.
UXOs in Laos, and the "Secret War"
During the Vietnam War, the United States and its allies, suspecting Vietcong insurgents of hiding out in the Laotian jungles, carried out a heavy bombing campaign in Laos. While not officially an active participant in the war, in just five years, tiny, rural Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world.
While the US military had to follow certain rules of engagement in Vietnam - no bombing within X meters of a school, hospital, or temple, for example, due to the secret nature of the aptly named "Secret War", the military was entirely unrestrained in its bombing of Laos. The war in Laos was kept secret from the American people during the war.
Today, while the war is long over, millions of UXOs still scatter the Lao jungles and mountains. Laos, with a small population of around 7 million, has many times more unexploded bombs in the country than people.
The US government has since taken responsibility for its role in the Secret War, and USAID is one of the several sponsors and partners of COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise, an NGO based in Vientiane. COPE's mission is to provide wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and rehabilitation services free of charge to the thousands of people every year who are injured after accidentally stumbling across a rusting 40 year-old bomb just waiting to go off.
COPE Visitor's Center
No visit to Vientiane is complete without a visit to the COPE Visitor's Center, a small but solemn and heartbreaking museum explaining the UXO situation in Laos and the efforts of the government and NGOs to try to remove the bombs.
The museum is free to visit, but before looking around, visit the small cinema at the museum to watch the documentary video. You can ask the staff to put the film on for you. The film follows an Australian bomb disposal expert as he trains a new team, and shows how difficult and dangerous it is to remove the old bombs. Watching the video before looking around the museum will give you a much deeper appreciation for COPE's mission. Warning: parts of the video can be graphic.
Laos is a poor and rural country, with mountainous jungle terrain and weak infrastructure. It can be very difficult to get to certain rural villages, much less be able to properly dispose of the bombs that are found.
Another problem in Laos is the illegal black market scrap metal trade, which encourages villagers to try to dig bombs up themselves. Even rusted bomb metal can be valuable. A single bomb can be worth as much as two months of food for a family. When even nine out of ten bombs may be inert, to a poor rural kid, digging up an old bomb may be worth the risk. This is a huge problem, especially as Laos has only a small bomb disposal squad and few resources.
Prosthetic Limbs and Rehabilitation
COPE's main mission is providing wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and rehabilitation free of charge to those thousands of people injured every year in a bomb explosion. This is no small task, as a single prosthetic leg can cost over $300 USD. COPE relies on government aid and private donations.
In addition to helping victims of UXOs, COPE also provides rehabilitation to people with other sorts of physical disabilities.
Gift Shop and Karma Coffee
As you are leaving the small and informative museum, make sure to visit the gift shop, where you can purchase handicrafts, coffee mugs, t-shirts, books, and more, with all proceeds going to support COPE's mission.
As you leave the center, stop at the Karma Coffee cafe just outside for some delicious, organic, free-trade coffee and homemade ice cream. Proceeds from Karma Coffee go back to supporting COPE.
COPE Center Opening Hours
The COPE Visitor's Center is open daily from 9:00am-6:00pm
COPE Center Location
The COPE Center is located on Khouvieng Road, at the Center for Medical Rehabilitation campus. It's easy to find, but the exact address won't always show up on apps. Every taxi or tuk-tuk driver in the city will know where it is, however. The COPE Center is just a few minutes away by foot from Wat Si Mueang.
COPE Center admission
There is no ticket cost to visit the COPE Center. It is a free museum. Donations are very welcome, and there is a small gift shop that sells things like books, handicrafts, and Laotian coffee, with proceeds going directly towards COPE's projects.