Monday, August 26, 2013


Artwork of cluster bomb discharging 'bombies'
A cluster bomb has to be one of the most destructive weapons in world history. If you’ve ever seen video of a cluster bomb in action, you would agree. The damage they can do over a very wide area, is absolutely devastating. 

Dropped by air, most cluster bombs first appear to be a large, standard bomb. But this is deceptive, a cluster bomb’s outer shell is only a container, a ‘dispenser’. After release from an attacking aircraft, this metal container plummets toward earth, and splits apart, opening in mid-air to discharge it’s dangerous payload. 

Here in Vientiane, I’m looking up at a cluster bomb right now, frozen in time just after it has been divided in two. With the airborne dispenser broken apart, it’s lethal cargo has been dispersed into the air below. The contents don’t look very dangerous, they resemble a scattered rain of small metal baseballs. But these spheres aren’t toys, they are submunitions, and each one can contain enough explosive and shrapnel to kill or injure a roomful of people. The Laotians have their own name for these: ‘bombies’. 

This dispenser and dummy bombies hang by thin lines from the ceiling above me, and are no longer dangerous. They're part of a sobering display of anti-war artwork in the Vientiane headquarters of COPE. (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) Obviously COPE is not your average humanitarian organization. Even the COPE sign outside is formed from old prosthetic limbs, molded together. 

The biggest cause of postwar related injuries in Laos has been, and continues to be, from cluster bombs. A caption for this unique artwork explains the hazard well:

There are many types of cluster bomb. All work in similar ways scattering explosive ‘submunitions’ over a wide area. In the case of the large casings suspended here, one case would contain enough small ‘bombies’ to cover an area equivalent to three football fields. 

Each case contained up to 680 individual cluster bombs, each with a killing radius of 30 meters. The fins on the outside cause the bomb to spin to arm the device. With impact the explosion occurs. In test conditions 30% of this type of device did not explode. This means that out of the 260 million dropped there could have been 80 million unexploded cluster bombs left after the bombing ended. 

The 'COPE' sign is made of prosthetic limb parts

While I look at the hanging artwork, a Laotian boy walks up, and grabs one of the bombies suspended on its transparent line. Pretending it explodes, he feigns pain, and walks away. At least he’s aware that bombies are dangerous. Another boy approaches later, but he’s in a wheelchair tricycle. I wave hello to him, since I don’t speak Lao. He smiles, and waves back to me. This unfortunate boy is a patient here at COPE, and he’s wearing a prosthetic leg that he probably lost to a bombie. Some patients here have stepped on unexploded ordinance, (UXO) and lost both legs. Others picked up a live bombie and lost an arm, sometimes going blind. 

Balls for the game 'Petang' resemble bombies

There's been more than 13,000 casualties in Laos since the war ended from UXO and landmines, and about half were children. In the countryside wherepoverty is rife, children have few toys. When they happen upon bombies or other unexploded munitions, their curiosity may get the better of them, and results can be deadly. In 2008, a group of rural Laotian children went out looking for land crabs, and found a cluster bomblet instead. Four boys were killed, and five others injured. There are still about 300 civilian Laotian casualties every year from bombies and other UXO. 

Days before, I recall seeing men on the river front playing petang, a French game where balls are tossed back and forth, similar to horseshoes. Petang is popular in Laos, and unfortunately for children, the steel balls used in this game resemble bombies. How many children have been killed or injured in Laos, when they picked up a bombie, thinking it was only a petang ball?

With so many civilians still being killed or injured by cluster bombs not only in Laos, but in other post-war countries, public outcry arose against these devastating weapons. Like the earlier campaign to ban landmines, recent years saw a similar campaign to ban cluster bombs from the world’s armories. In 2008, the Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 107 countries, prohibiting the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Although a major step in ridding the world of these weapons, the world’s three largest weapons producers, the USA, Russia and China, did not sign the treaty. 

Here in Laos, the treaty came far too late. With millions of bombies still lying around the Laotian countryside, COPE will have no shortage of patients in the coming years. As I walk around the displays COPE’s Communications Advisor Tracie Williams joins me, telling me more of COPE’s noble work. “Our service is provided for free for those who can’t afford it,” she says. “We provide the prosthetic, rehab and other expenses.” 

Discarded patients' prosthetics hang from ceiling of the COPE center
I would expect this to be a very expensive process, but I’m pleasantly surprised at how cost effective their system is. Each below the knee prosthetic costs only about $100 per patient. Artificial limbs are made on site, just next door in their prosthetic and orthotic workshop. “They use International Red Cross Standards,” Tracie says. “They’re all handcrafted. Low cost.”

By not relying on expensive foreign doctors or manufacturers, their partnership with the Laotian government makes the operation more sustainable, “COPE is a local project, that works in conjunction with the Ministry of Health,” says Tracie. “Most staff are government staff.” Their well received operation now has five COPE clinics across Laos.

Among other UXO displays, is another somber artwork. Also hanging from the high ceiling are numerous prosthetic legs. These are old artificial limbs and some are homemade. A few are fashioned from wood. One is even made of bamboo, with the base made from half a coconut. It looks much like a peg leg from pirate
Homemade leg prosthetic at left, made from bamboo, and half a coconut!!
lore. All these limbs are from former patients. They discarded these prosthetics after receiving new ones here at COPE. 

Among the interactive displays, is a prosthetic leg you can try on. While I watch, a British visitor straps it on. I ask him if it’s comfortable. 

“Not really,” he replies. “It’s really awkward.”

The artificial leg is mostly plastic and metal, with a foot made of rubber. With a bent leg, I insert my knee, and tighten the velcro straps. I put weight on it, and the first sensation I get is immediate pain. Since it isn’t fitted for me, this is not unlike the pain that legless UXO survivors endure when they wore homemade prosthetics. Also here are training stairs, used for patient therapy. I slowly walk up the steps, using the hand rails. It’s definitely awkward. Reaching the top, I look at a mirror. I see I've one normal leg, and one artificial. This is how Laotian patients here see themselves every day. 

A few other patients are here as well. Using crutches, they don’t have a prosthetic yet. The total process of getting a proper prosthetic limb isn’t easy, it entails fitting, manufacture, therapy, and occasionally surgery. But the alternative for these unfortunate folks is to remain crippled and dependent for life. A prosthetic is all about regaining mobility, and many of these patients can return to work. In time, they feel empowered, and self-esteem improves. Some will even be able to walk through their villages without a limp.                                                                                        

“You can see the difference it makes in peoples lives,” Tracie says proudly. “They can go back (to their villages), and cultivate rice.”
Visitors to COPE can try on this prosthetic leg

Artwork of woman and child fleeing an attack


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