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Thursday 4 Jul 2013
Tad Leuk, Laos

The legacies of war

I've never studied the history of this part of the world in much detail - not something which came up much in GCSE history - and the causes, events and legacy of the Vietnam war are a bit of a mystery beyond what Hollywood has produced over the years. I knew that America was involved for a long time, that protests against the war were synonymous with the 1960s, and that it was a very brutal war on the ground, but I hadn't really understood what it was all about or what actually went on.
Our first visit today helped to answer some of these questions and brought events of the war very much into the light. Laos is officially the most bombed country per capita. It is still one of the world's poorest countries and remains that way, in part, due to the amount of land which is still unfarmable because of the sheer volume of unexploded ordinance (UXO) still lying in rice paddies, rivers, forests, villages and just about anywhere along the length of the Ho Chi Minh trail down to Cambodia and Vietnam.  America flew 580,344 bombing missions over Laos, dropping 2.2 million tons of bombs - more than was dropped in the entirety of WWII. Of these bombs, over 30% failed to explode. The scatter bombs were the worst, with each missile containing up to 300 small grenade-sized bombies spread over a wide area.  Through this entire bombardment campaign, Presidents Kennedy and Nixon repeatedly denied that the US had any presence in Laos.

The COPE Centre is a not-for-profit organisation which helps today's victims of UXO - an unimaginable 12,000 people have been injured by UXO since the end of the war.  Since the British Mines Advisory Group began helping to clear these UXO in 1994, only a fraction of them have been successfully removed. At the current rate it will take over 100 years to free the Laos pople of this terrible legacy. With the support of the Australian army, COPE runs programmes for volunteers from each province to train as local bomb-disposal specialists. We watched a documentary about one such course, seeing how they had to deal with a bomb discovered under the main road in a village, just feet away from the school playground. The scrap metal trade is one of the few ways to make extra money, so half of the battle is about educating people on the dangers of touching or moving bombs when they are discovered. What looks like an easy way to earn some money could actually be deadly and many people - children included - are still killed or maimed when the bombs go off. 

COPE provides free prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to those affected. One limb lasts, on average, three years so they need replacing regularly - for children this is much more frequent as they grow. Many have to travel miles to Vientiane for treatment, so COPE also covers their travel costs.

I found the documentary quite difficult to watch and I was close to tears looking around the exhibition of photographs and stories in the museum. Having worked in woundcare for so long and met numerous amputee patients, I was forced to recognise once again how lucky I am to have been born in a wealthy country with free healthcare. The NHS may be a creaking ship, but at least everyone has access to it. What these people have had to go through as a result of a war that was over long before they were even born is truly awful. The older generations who hid in fear from bombs, or watched their homes and families blown apart, are still living with that legacy even now. Thank goodness there is an organisation like COPE doing what it can to help.
I felt that we didn't have nearly long enough at the COPE centre. I could have stayed another couple of hours easily to see the prosthetics workshop and learn more about their work. The least I could do was give a donation and buy a t-shirt. I still have chills just remembering it while I write this blog.

Leaving Vientiane behind us, we headed south on the long rural Route 8 that would eventually lead to Cambodia.
One of my reasons for chosing Stray was the next section of the trip that would take us off the main roads and into some of the lesser travelled parts of the country. This started with an overnight stay in Tad Leuk National Park. We left the main road and drove 90 minutes along a very bumpy dirt road to reach a small army camp on the edge of a river. The camp was intended as a visitors' education centre, but over the course of 2008 nine elephants were found slain in the jungle, so the army now has a permanent presence to deter poachers.
We had dropped off the American couple and picked up two new members of the group before leaving Vientiane: Laura (British) and Heather (Canadian). After laying out our bedrolls in the education centre, most of the group went for a guided walk along the jungle loop, but Krysia, Jill and I jumped straight into the muddy river for a soak. The slippery squelch of leaves and mud on the bottom of the river was quite unpleasant, but overidden by the cool water after a long hot day. As the others got back from the walk they all joined us in the river.
We spent the evening playing cards and drinking games with our guides. Our bus driver was the worst, handing out shots of Lao-lao to everyone and giggling to himself when we all gagged and pulled faces. I resorted to spitting mine into a beer bottle Coyote-Ugly-style, pretending I was following it up with a beer chaser. The army guys built us a camp fire when it got dark and we sat up late telling stories and playing a ridiculous game called Sushi. It has only three rules, but it took Simon and Carl forever to get them after drinking so much Lao-lao.

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