The Vietnam War is still heavily present in Laos, the country that experienced the most bombings by the American military. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of explosives on Laos, and the effect can still be felt today. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) riddle the landscape, and cluster bombs in particular continue to injure and kill many people in rural areas.
The problem is so prevalent, an organization called COPE—short for the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise—was created to help with the recovery of the victims of bombs, by providing custom prosthetics, rehabilitative services, and education to rural communities affected by the bombs to attempt to prevent future accidents.
To foreign visitors, particularly Americans, the COPE Visitor Centre is jarring and incredibly informative. The shadow war in Laos is clearly presented, complete with a sculpture of a dangling UXO right at the entrance. The “COPE” sign on the side of the building is created from used prosthetic feet. Dangling inside are dozens of worn-out prosthetic limbs, returned by bomb victims in exchange for new prosthetics.
Outside the building is a statue of a mother and child created from discarded bomb materials. Inside, there’s a full-scale replica of a rural Laotian stilt house, with daily household items created out of military equipment (and occasionally bomb materials) discarded by American and European militaries. It highlights how families are utilizing bomb materials while not understanding the danger they can cause. Pictures and stories accompany the displays, putting names and faces to the many thousands of victims of the military campaign in Laos. If there is one place for foreigners to visit in Vientiane, this may be it.