Sunday, December 30, 2012

For Christmas...An Arm and A Leg

This year for Christmas, we got our families a gift that was inspired by our travels. We weren't going to be sending packages home full of exotic gifts from abroad, but we came across something that fit the bill perfectly, even if it was an arm and a leg.

Literally. An arm and a leg. That's what we got our family for Christmas. Let me explain. One afternoon in Vientiane, Laos, I had some time to myself and went to the COPE Center, which is a rehabilitation and advocacy center for victims of unexploded bombs. They have set up a visitors center to educate the public about unexploded bombs in Laos and the various rehabilitation services that they provide, including prosthetic limbs.

Before I walked into that center I will admit that I was pretty ignorant of the situation there. I had heard a lot about landmines in Cambodia, but this was something else entirely. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. It's rather mind blowing and bears repeating. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. Wow.

During the American War (or Vietnam War), Laos was dragged into the war as parts were occupied by the North Vitnamese to use for supply routes to the south, ie. the Ho Chi Minh trail. Their geographic location, just to the west of Vietnam, led to devastating consequences. From 1964-1973 it is estimated that a B-52 bombload was dropped on Laos every 8 minutes. More bombs were dropped on Laos during this period than during the entire Second World War. Upwards of 30% of those bombs, mostly cluster bombs, failed to explode leaving behind a path of death and destruction that continues today.

What makes this all more devastating is that we have heard over and over that not all of these bombs were targeted for Laos. We, the Americans, dropped tons of bombs without reason in Laos. Actually, we had a perfectly good explanation. Our aircrafts flew out of bases in Thailand to bomb Vietnam during the war. They had just enough fuel to get back to base, assuming the bombs had been released. Therein lies the catch. The bombs had to be released, otherwise the extra weight would interfere with the fuel projections and the airplane would not have enough fuel to arrive back at base. So if they missed their target over Vietnam, they would be forced to drop them in Laos, where they exploded then, or maybe later, or maybe some day in the future.

Even now, decades after the war, they continue to feel the effects. People collecting scrap metal to sell find bombs and, not registering the danger, pick them up. Many are children. Building a fire over an area where a bomb is buried may also cause it to detonate. Simply farming the land and coming across an unexploded bomb makes farming a dangerous activity in some parts of the country. Daily life for many is still greatly affected for those living in areas contaminated with unexploded bombs, and especially those whose lives have been touched by the destruction of the bombs in their own communities. The Laos government estimates that these bombs still affect 25% of rural villages. There are agencies working in Laos to clear the contamination, but it is a slow process.

Facts and figures. Click to enlarge.
(UXOs stands for unexploded ordnance, essentially unexploded bomb.)

Needless to say, after visiting the COPE Center in Vientiane, we knew we had found the perfect gift for our families. Merry Christmas everyone!

Some pics from our actual Christmas, spent lazily in Hoi An,Vietnam. We were lucky enough to also celebrate a day early with a Christmas brunch with the fabulous Fernandes family, including Simon's latest crush, Oriel.

Christmas brunch.
Christmas brunch crew at Intercontinental Resort, Danang.
Simon making friends on Christmas Eve.
Simon watching Swedish Christmas cartoon.

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