July 16, 2012

Reflections on Laos

In March a group of Friendship Tours World students traveled to Laos, where they visited COPE, an organization that provides prosthetic limbs and orthotic rehabilitation for victims of UXOs (unexploded ordinances). From 1964 to 1973 the US dropped over two million tons of cluster munitions onto Laos. The campaign was part of the CIA's "Secret War," which was intended to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist forces of the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. While the US has long since packed up and gone home, 30% of the munitions dropped on the country remain unexploded, and 37% of Laos is still contaminated with these "bombies." 40 years after the war, less than 1% of the UXO's have been cleared; and while the US spent $17 million per day dropping bombs, between 1993 and 2010 it has only spent $3.1 million per year cleaning them up.

Motivated by her experience in Laos and time at COPE, Clarissa Coburn, an 11th grader at Laguna Blanca School in Santa Barbara, CA wrote a letter urging Americans to visit Laos and do their part to help heal the country from the bloody legacy of the Secret War:

Clarissa at COPE

Reflections on Laos, the Secret War and Unexploded Ordinances
Clarissa Coburn, 11th grade
Laguna Blanca School

Wars in history books are about facts and statistics:  famous people, important dates, key strategies and the long-term political and economic effects, as understood by the “winners.” But when it comes down to it, war isn’t as clean cut or simple as it is made out to be. There are no true winners when casualties are a consequence. It is really hard to remember that all of the lofty ideals and pure motives in the world cannot change the fact that people will die — innocent people who may or may not support those who are the intended target.

That’s what I learned in Laos, it’s embarrassing that I had to go all the way to South East Asia to realize something that should be completely obvious: all of those statistics--those “body counts”--were once real, living people with hopes, dreams and potential. Every statistic that  says 10,000 people died in a war, really means that 10,000 people had their lives cut short. And it’s not just those individual losses; for each of those deaths, 10,000 families lost loved ones. Thousands more of those 10,000 dead also lost best friends, lovers, co-workers, and community members. That random person who used to smile from the corner table at the local coffee shop? Gone. 10,000 people are now missing who never got a chance to finish their projects, contribute to society or meet that person who’s  thrilled to find  they had the same weird quirk. Potential lost, love lost, countless opportunities lost, and why? Because top decision-makers decided that war was necessary. Civilian casualties were justified, and  in the end the world would be a better place for it.

And so in Laos I learned this lesson. It was a nasty surprise. As I thought about the estimated 20,000 to 200,000 civilians who died during the Secret War in Laos, I felt utterly horrified. But the worst blow came next: it wasn’t over. Laotians live with the threat of unexploded cluster munitions  on 37% of their country. Sure, we stopped bombing 40 years ago and the War, no longer secret but still largely unheard of, has been over for so long that Americans have already had several intervening wars. For young Americans, the Vietnam War is a thing of ancient history, but the story is different in Laos. Laotians can’t forget about what America did to them because they continue to live with it every single day. For them, existing on less than two U.S. dollars per day, escape is impossible. It’s not as easy as moving on to talk about the next war.

For me, nothing could have brought that message home quite like meeting the people who knew exactly what it is to suffer from the after-effects of  war. It is impossible to explain the experience of meeting these people;  it is truly a situation where you must go and see for yourself. It can’t be explained; words can’t ever be as convincing here in the US, where it all seems like an admittedly sad, but far-off story. I am aware that there are serious budget problems that our nation must deal with, and that spending cuts must be made. But in the end we caused this damage and we need to clean it up. At the very least, we owe the Lao people something better than a 2,000 year future of fear, death, injury and poverty.

Ultimately, all I can really say is this: I challenge you to go to Laos and see the extreme poverty. I challenge you to witness the ways in which scrap weaponry is incorporated into everyday life. I challenge you to visit a mother who lost her five year old child to a UXO. I challenge you to hear the story of a teenager who lost his eyes and both hands on his 16th birthday in an accident of curiosity. I challenge you to listen to him when he tells you that he doesn’t blame you or America. I challenge you to think long and hard about whether or not you find yourself as guiltless as he does.

And after you have done these simple things: I challenge you to return home and retain your position about giving US aid to Laos.

Hillary Clinton's pledge to COPE

Just last week, on July 11th, Secretary Hillary Clinton visited  COPE during a tour through SE Asia before the 2012 ASEAN conference. While visiting the facilities, Clinton received a hard-copy of Clarissa's letter in her welcome basket. In response, Clinton wrote her own letter pledging US support for  COPE, Laos and the removal of cluster bombs. 

What can you do to help? Join our partners, Legacies of War, learn more about the "Secret War," help spread education and awareness, and donate to the cause. Or take Clarissa's words to heart and join us next spring on an investigatory journalism trip to Laos. A group of people dedicated to making a difference can have a huge impact on the world. 

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