To my right, about 30 prosthetic legs hang from fishing line to create a thought provoking piece. The ones hung closer to the floor are rudimentary, made primarily from a wood log or pipe. The materials have been salvaged and painstakingly carved by hands desperate for the body to work again, for the ability to make a living, for a sense of normalcy As the limbs ascend they become more technologically advanced—stronger, lighter, capable of bending at the knee. In contrast, another installation sits in front of me. This one though dominates the room, with hundreds of tennis ball-size pieces looking as if they are falling from ceiling to floor. Each piece however, is a plaster of Paris model of a bombie and these, unlike real ones dropped on Laos, don’t drop, but instead hang inertly suspended, mercifully granting this country reprieve.
I am at COPE National Rehabilitation Center here in Laos. It’s a devastatingly sobering center as one of its aims is to educate others on the enduring consequences of the US’s Secret War on it. For 9 years (1965-1973), the US feared the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia and so in the way that America does, it intervened. And in this case at this time, intervening meant flying hundreds of missions from Thailand and Southern Vietnam, dropping 260 million explosives on a country with a population of fewer than 7 million, equating to 37 explosives per person. It meant flouting the international community by violating the Geneva Convention, it meant lying to Congress and the US public, and it meant utterly destroying a country and people who were not our enemies.
And it meant for me, feeling again what has been becoming a familiar salad of emotions. Anger and sadness, embarrassment and disgust. In Nicaragua I felt this way as I learned the US had ousted the Sandinistas. For what? Ideology? And the feelings have been there in Vietnam learning about Agent Orange and the generational effects of chemical warfare. But if there was any sense of justification, it is to be found in the ugliness that is war. But this? There is no sense of justice in something that has been done in secret. There is only anger.
And for a people that have seen 11,000 die from UXOs (Unexploded Ordnances) since the “war” ended, that farming of land comes hand in hand with the fear of digging up bombies, for a country that can’t progress with roads and infrastructure without first flashing back to the US’s past role in hindering the present. Or to learn that the country won’t be cleared of UXOs for many decades…there is only sadness.
Embarrassment comes from my growing up in the US and not knowing of our responsibility here…or for John McCain’s singing joke “bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb” playing in my head. Learning that when air missions couldn’t be carried out in Vietnam, they were diverted to secondary targets in Laos mostly to just get rid of bombs rather than take the added risk of landing with them on Navy ships; that disgusted me.
COPE though tries to move the country past these feelings. I learn that the center provides prosthetic legs to victims of bombie explosions as part of a holistic approach to healing in the country. As people with new legs and arms return to their villages one can often see shells of bombs turned into boats or house supports, scrap metal from bombs are recycled into knives, pots, bowls and shelves.
We exit the Center at dusk, quiet settling on both Mari and me. And there, lining the side paths we see more shells of big bombs. Only they’ve been placed on their side, propped up. Inside each of the shells hints of pink push past the tender green leaves as young flowers are for the first time, coming into bloom.