Chaghcharan ~ Ghosts of The Ghorid Empire

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There are two entries in Wikipedia for Chaghcharan.

Chaghcharān (Persian: چغچران) is a town and district in central Afghanistan, as well as the capital of Ghor Province. It was formerly known as Ahangaran. The main inhabitants of Chaghcharan are Tajiks. It is located on the southern side of the Hari River, at an altitude of 2,280 meters above sea level. Approximately 15,000 people live in the town, making it the largest in the province. Chaghcharan is linked by a 380-kilometre-long highway with Herat to the west and about the same distance with Kabul to the east. Due to severe weather, the road is often closed during winter and even in summer it can take three full days to drive from Chagcharan to Kabul.

There is an airstrip, located north and west of the Hari River, one mile east/northeast of Chaghcharan. It is approximately 1800 metres in length, unpaved and capable of supporting small to medium sized aircraft.

In 2004, an independent FM radio station راديو صداي صلح or ‘Voice of Peace Radio’ opened in the town, the first independent media in this part of Afghanistan.

In June 2005, ISAF established a Lithuanian led Provincial Reconstruction Team in which Croatian, Danish, US, UkranianIcelandic troops also serve.

and

Chaghcharan District is one of the most populated districts in Ghor Province (115,000 in 2005). It is a mountainous district. The winter is severe and the roads are inaccessible because of the snow. The district center Chaghcharan is also the capital of the province. It is situated at 34°31′21″N 65°15′06″E / 34.5225°N 65.2517°E / 34.5225; 65.2517 at 2268 m elevation. The drought seriously affected the agriculture — the main source of income. There are a hospital and secondary schools in the district center, but because of the bad roads and severe weather they are hardly accessible to the rural population. Most of the population is Aimaq Hazara.


The first states that the people are mostly Tajik.  The second correctly states that the people of Chagcharan are mostly Aimaq.  The Aimaq are a Shi’a people closely related to the Hazara of Afghanistans Hazarajat.

I have been trying to get to Chaghcharan for the past 18 months to train the ANP Province Logistics Cadre.  Always before some problem arose.  Some unseen event would halt our progress and keep us away.  Either personnel on the ground were busy or out of the net or the winter snows would forestall progress in our travel.  We’d get bumped from the flight.  The flight would be cancelled due to weather or the aircraft would break down on the flight line or be re-routed.  Something would happen to keep us from getting there.  All plans came to naught.

Finally, Shoaib and I made it up there. I didn’t trust it until we actually landed.  Kept waiting for a sudden snow storm or the aircraft to run out of fuel and need to re-direct to Bagram or Kabul or worse, yet, Qandahar.  Who knows.  It’s happened before.

Heading out on leave, I was flown from Herat to Kabul.  Somehow, we were re-routed to Qandahar for a fuel stop.  We landed.  I looked out the window and told my fellow passengers that we were in Qandahar.  They thought I was crazy.  I recognized the place though because I’d been there a couple of times with another company.  I just started laughing as the flight crew stepped back to apologize for the landing and explained that neither Kabul or Herat had fuel readily available so we had to land in Qandahar to fuel up.  That pit stop turned a 1 hour 45 minute flight into a 5 hour ordeal.  Making matters worse was that we had been on the flight line for 10 hours prior to that flight because 3 other flights had been canceled that day.  We were happy as hell, though, when we landed in Kabul.  Not a complaint one.  We were just happy to finally make it and be in position to make it out for our respective R&Rs.

Back to Chaghcharan…

We board a Canadian ISAF flight to Chaghcharan from Herat.  Shoaib and I are both afraid to get our hopes up.  We both want to get  up into the mountains and finally do some work in Chor Province.  Shoaib had lived and worked there previously.  He was a Terp for the Lithuanian contingent.  He’d spent two years up there.  I am fascinated by the history of the region and would really like to experience as much of Afghanistan as possible before I finally give up this region and head home or wherever I end up after the Stan.

The Canandians are funny.  A little female NCO comes and briefs us and clears the military passengers weapons.  She gives us the safety brief and tells us that it’s a short flight so we should keep our IBA and Helmets on for the whole of the flight.  Then.  She leads us to the aircraft.  We climb aboard.

We roll down the tarmac and go wheels up.  Almost safe.

I don’t think they turned the heat on during the flight.  No matter.  I was prepared and bundled up in my fleece, Palestinian scarf and combat gloves.  I was warm.  I strap myself in.  Put my helmet on and prepare to catch a nap.

Shoaib sits on the web seating and tries to work the seat belt.  I watch him as he stares at it befuddled and then show him how to work the clasp.  All the while chuckling.  I had assumed that he’d been on a C130 before.

Apparently, he hadn’t.

45 minutes later, we land.

I’m excited as hell.

FINALLY!

We made it.

18 months in the making.  We’re in Chaghcharan.  I’ve read about the place and never thought I’d ever actually make it there.

We climb down the stairs to exit the aircraft and walk onto the dirt runway.

There are three little buildings.  One of which is an outhouse.  The other two are locked up and look to have been out of commission for quite a few years.

We’re greeted by the PRT welcome wagon.  A mix of US and Coalition soldiers from Lithuania, Denmark and Croatia.  They load our bags into some Toyota pick  up trucks and we jump in for the short ride to the FOB.

FOB Whiskey.  PRT Whiskey.  Depending on who is talking to you.  It’s a smallish FOB in the middle of the Hari Rud river basin.  It looks like they diverted the river with a canal the runs around the base and into town.  Even so, when the river swells in the wiinter rain months, the FOB floods and the plywood walking planks, I’m told, float as you walk on them.

We should be returning at that time.  So we may get to experience the floating planks.

We meet our military sponsors.  They show us to our Five Star Hotel.  A not well insulated tent with very inadequate heating that is as dusty as the roads out in town.  No matter.  I’m happy to be there.

It’s a decent FOB.  Pretty good chow.  Same day laundry service.  Decent gym.  Surrounded by Hescos, Concertina wire and 12 ft tall fencing.  As safe as any place in Afghanistan.  Chaghcharan is a pretty sleepy town.  Not too much activity of any sort.  If the Taliban are there, they’re sleeping and waiting to go somewhere else to cause trouble.  FOB Whiskey hasn’t had problems of any sort for almost a year.

We settle in.  Grab a bunk and are given a tour of the FOB.  Not much to see and won’t go into it here.  The highlight is the MWR house with pool tables–Russian and regular.  It also houses a small internet cafe with intermittent internet access.  Every Thursday, the Coalition forces have a beer night.  3 beer limit.  The US forces can not imbibe.  General Order #1 prohibits the consumption of alcohol in Afghanistan.  That lovely throwback to our puritan roots that makes absolutely no sense to me.

I sit down with my military sponsor and we put together a plan.  He briefs me on the Ghor Province Commander and Logistics Cadre.  Giving me a rundown of shortcomings and items that he’d like me to include in my instruciton.  Fuel and Accountability.  We talk about the usual problems that he has noted during his tour in Chaghcharan.  We plan out the next two weeks.

By that time, it’s getting late.  I head off to bed.

I can’t talk too much about our routes and training.  So I’ll leave that part out of here for now.

The rest of the week is left to coordinating travel.

As we travel around to various sites, we drive through the town of Chaghcharan to and from the Province HQ.  We visit the Generals house.  Hit up a few check points to see if they are supplied correctly or manned at all.  All seems well.

I always carry my camera on these trips.  Along the way, I snap random photos.

We drove up to a check point and supply point in the hills surrounding Chaghcharan.  On the way to one of them, we stop at an old Russian Fort.  It looks old.  Like Great Game old.  Late 1800s or so.  I grab my camera and take pictures of the surrounding area.  It’s beautiful country.  Greenery.  Desert.  Mountains.  Roads heading off towards places like Sagar and Pasaband.  A road that one can follow straight to Kabul.  The same road that took the author of  The Places In Between from Herat to Kabul.  Beautiful.  It’s like being on top of the world up there.  You can see for miles in every direction.

After we finish with our mission of training the ANP Logistics Cadre, it’s time for us to head back.  We manifest for a Sunday flight.  That flight gets canceled.  I get a little worried.  Next flight out is Tuesday.  So that Sunday, we head back to the PHQ to mentor the Province Logistics Commander.

Tuesday.  We make the flight.  Early flight.  We rise at OH DARK Thirty.  Pack our bags and equipment on a Toyota truck and head out to the airfield.  We are getting a ride on the mail flight.  It’s a Blackwater flight.  Old Russian Bird.  We wait out on the airstrip for about 45 minutes and she lands.  We climb aboard.

What a difference in conditions.  It’s a heated civilian bird.  Seats like a 747.  But big and cushy.  HEAT!  EXCELLENT HEAT!  Best of all….WINDOWS!

I can take photos along the way on the flight back to Herat.  I must have taken a couple of hundred photos.  Some are below.  I’m pretty syked about this.  I know somewhere in our flight path is Jam and it’s 1000 year old Minaret.  I would love to visit this site.  Get down there and touch it, smell it.  Get a feel for it.  It was built by the rulers of the Ghorid Empire sometime during their reign in the area.  1088 or so.  It’s one of those places that was forgotten and re-discovered.  It’s a 60m tall Minaret with the Mary Sura from the Qu’ran written around the whole of the body of the Minaret.  It’s in surprisingly good shape for a monument from antiquity.

We had a smooth flight and an even smoother landing.  Once we land, Shoaib and I jump off the aircraft.  Offload our bags and drag them to the pick up point.  I send Shoaib home and wait for my ride.  First order of business when I land is to call my boss and let him know that I’m “home.”

Then I call Habibi.  It’s been a little over a week since I’ve talked to  my diminutive sweetheart and I can’t wait to talk to her.  I call her up and…get her answering service.  She’s at work and has her phone turned off.  I laugh.  I guess I’ll have to wait to talk to Unny.

I sit down, pull out my book and wait for my ride back to homebase.  Two hours later, I’m in my hooch relaxing.

Later that night, I finally get through to Unny and my heart smiles to finally hear her voice.  54 more days and I’ll be with her in Bangkok.  We’ll have our party at Bedsupper Club on Soi 11.  Then we head out for our 9 day tour of Vietnam.  Backpacker style.

Very excited about this trip.

Below are the pictures that I took along the way in Chaghcharan.   Lots of pics.  I took approximately fifteen hundred photos up there.  I’ve included a little over a hundred of the best for this blog.

I hope you enjoy them.

Peace

 

Masjid-i Jami — The Great Mosque of Herat

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Herat is the largest city in the Western Region of Afghanistan. The city is as old as mankind. It pre-dates Alexander the Great by centuries and has been invaded and conquered by every power to sweep through Asia. Following Alexander were the Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Timurids, the Mongolian Hordes, the Mughals of India and Central Asia. The British tried to take the city through force of arms. The Czars of Russia attempted to steal it away through both armed force and and intrigue. 100 years afer the Czars failed, the communists of Soviet Union invaded and were eventually thrown back across the Amu Darya by the Afghans with a healthy bit of assistance from American Stinger missiles. Lastly, the Taliban took it in the late 90s. As we all know, the Taliban were forced out after the International Community finally came to it’s senses in the post-9/11 era. Presently it is a hesitant member of the Karzai government. It’s chief is held hostage of a sort of the Kabul government so that Karzai can avail the central government of the border taxes from trade with Iran and Turkmenistan.

The heart and soul of Herat is the Masjid-i Jami. The Friday Mosque also known as the Great Mosque and the Blue Mosque. This is the community mosque. On Friday–the Muslim holy day, many of the cities inhabitants gather at theMosque to pray or socialize or just as an excuse to get out on a sunny day and relax among their fellow Heratis. Mosques usually serve as a community center of sorts. They are a place where a city or village residents gather and hear the news or read the Qu’ran. Of course, there is the muezzin calling sura’s from the Qu’ran 5 times a day as well.

Masjid Jami was built bythe Ghurid rulers in 1200 AD making it about 800 years old. By the end of the Century, Ginghis Khan would roll through Herat. Leaving the city and the mosque in ruins. It would suffer through war and natural disaster but ultimately survive. It has been renovated several times over the centures by various rulers who have left their unique cultural mark. As with all Mosques, it faces Mecca. In this case facing South West.

This is a description of the Mosque from 1977. It remains much the same today:

The great mosque of Herat is one of Afghanistan’s more attractive sights. The form in which it stands today was originally laid out on the site of an earlier 10th century mosque in the year 1200 by the Ghrid Sultan Ghiyasuddin. Only tantalizing fragments of Ghorid decoration remain except for a splendid portal situated to the south of the main entrance. (enter from front situated to the south of the main entrance. (Enter from front garden through small door in mosque wall.) A bold Kufic inscription, including the name of the monarch, stands in high Persian-blue relief above a soft buff background intricately designed with floral motifs in cut brick. The combination of the bright, bold straight-lined script contrasts dramatically with the graceful delicacy of the background. It is an exciting example of the artistic sophistication of the ghorids. This stunning decoration was hidden under Timurid decorative tile until the winter of 1964 when experts working with the Kabul Museum removed the later Timurid decoration dating from the 15th century. The upper section of the Timurid arch, lower that the ghorid arch, has been left for interesting comparisons. Ghorid geometric patterns give way to increasingly exuberant floral patterns in the timurid decoration; coloured tile used sparingly only as an accent by the Ghorid is used to cover every inch of the architectural facade by their successors.
The lavish Timurid decorative restoration covered the entire surface of the mosque but it disappeared as the unstable political climate enveloped Herat during the 400 years following Timurid rule. Photographs taken in the courtyard in the early tears of the 20th century show only piles of rubble against bleak, white-washed walls. In 1943 an ambitious restoration program began and continues to today. It is the creation of three noted Herati artists, Fikhri Seljuki Herawi, Mohammad Sa’id Mashal-i Ghori, and the accomplished calligrapher, Mohammad Ali Herawi. A visit to the mosque workshop (to left of corridor leading from the front garden into the courtyard) is highly recommended.
The huge bronze cauldron in the courtyard dates from the reign of the Kart kings of Herat (1332-1381). It was originally used as a receptacle fro sherbet (a sweet drink) which was served to workshipers on feast days. It is now used for donations for the upkeep of the mosque.”
…” Better preserved fragments of Ghorid decoration may be seen on the arches of the short corridors on either side of the main iwan where the mehrab (prayer niche) is let into the west wall. Here the work was executed in cut brick and molded terracotta. In the south corridor, there is a Kufic inscription with a floral background done in a distinctive angular “brambly” style little seen elsewhere. Above this band there are two large panels of brickwork interspersed with x-form plugs and bordered with an undulating chain of molded terracotta arabesques. Simple in concept, the use of plain unadorned brick for design and texture produces a thoroughly handsome effect which is both aesthetically pleasing and strong. Between these brick panels there is a narrower panel filled with a complicated geometric design formed by a series of buds and interconnecting tendrils.
All that is left of the splendid Timurid restoration undertaken by Sultan Husain Baiqara’s prime minister Mir Ali Sher Nawai in 1498 may be found on the inside of the arcade in the southwest corner of the courtyard. The interiors fo these five arches are decorated with narrow strips of blue tile hexagons and octagons sprinkled with tiny golden flowers. Plain pink-beige tile plaques slightly in relief fill the spaces between. The relief and the tiny flowers produce an illusion of depth and mobility which is extremely effective.”

From Dupree, N. H. An historical guide to Afghanistan. Kabul. 1977. p.250

I have not been inside Masjid-i Jami. The military and my employer deem it too dangerous to roam freely or even armed in downtown Herat. These pictures were taken by my Interpretor who lives in the city. I visit the Provincial Police Headquarters (PHQ) about once every two weeks or so. This mosque is directly across the street. Every time that I’ve gone to the PHQ, Masjid-i Jami is full of folks. Children, elderly folks, students. Women in the burqa or chidari as the Tajiks call it. Burqa is a Pushtoon word. I’ve seen blue and black burqas worn here. In Kabul, I’ve seen pink, green and white worn. I imagine the folks at the mosque are out there contemplating, praying. Trying to find their path in life. Seeking God or the Eternal and Sacred.

In many respects, these people are like the rest of us in the world. They seek a better life for themselves and their children. Islam, in my opinion, turns the advantage against them. Islam, from my experience, has widespread problems with poverty and illiteracy. Education of the masses is not a Muslim priority. Rote memorization in a Madrassah is not literacy. Nor is it education. The more “western” a Muslim country. The more likely that it’s people will be educated. This is especially true of women in Muslim countries. There is a reason so many Muslims and especially Arab Muslims are educated outside of the lands of Islam.

The city market and two rather large schools are close by as well. It’s quite odd for me to see segregated schools as is the fashion in Muslim countries. At the end of the school day, the boys run out loud and excited wearing western style clothing. The girls run out just as animated wearing a black and white uniform consisting of a black tunic and white hijab (girls-school.jpg). I had to wonder why the boys weren’t made to wear a uniform as well.

Driving around Herat on the way to the Regional and Provincial Headquarters, is always fascinating. The shops. The people. The vehicles. The city is almost always a sweltering mass of humanity. The streets are never empty. I’m always left wondering. What do these people do in their lives? Where are they headed? Do they hate our presence, love our presence or merely see us as a necessary evil to gain security. Sometimes, I feel like we are wasting our time here. Sometimes, I see hope.

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p1013039.jpg Note the 18th Century Cannon on display outside the Mosque.

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Renovation and repair. Tiles being repaired.

p1013054.jpg The inner courtyard area of the Mosque.

p1013079.jpg Ablutions or wudy.gif — A Muslim must wash his face, neck, hands and feet prior to praying or entering a Mosque. The act is a ritual form of purification. Appearing cleansed before God. If no water is available Muslims will use sand or simulate the act as if water were present. The act is carried out as follows:

 

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1. Declare the intention that the act is for the purpose of worship and purity, start by saying Bismillah

2. Wash the hands up to the wrists, three times.

3. Rinse out the mouth with water, three times, preferably with a brush whenever it is possible.

4. Cleanse the nostrils of the nose by sniffing water into them, three times.

5. Wash the whole face three times with both hands, if possible, from the top of the forehead to the bottom of the chin and from ear to ear.

6. Wash the right arm three times up to the far end of the elbow, and then do the same with the left arm.

7. Wipe the whole head or any part of it with a wet hand, once.

8. Wipe the inner sides of the ears with the forefingers and their outer sides with the thumbs. This should be done with wet fingers.

9 Wash the two feet up to the ankles, three times, beginning with the right foot.

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View of Masjid-i Jami from the rooftop of PHQ. I had to climb a rickety, wooden, home made ladder to get to the roof. It was shaky but I made it up and back down. All 210 pounds of me plus body armor. I thought the thing was going to snap on me. It was worth the climb for the view of the city.

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The Children of the Khmer


Cambodia is probably the poorest country that I have visited. It’s much more of a backwater than even Afghanistan. Their only industry is the silk trade. Silk crafts such as scarves, table cloths, clothing, etc. Not much else in the way of industry. Handicrafts such as statuary. Precious and semi-precious gems. Tourism must be one of the, if not the, largest industry for Cambodia. Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap are the primary destinations of most tourists. Eco-tourism in the more remote areas for the more adventurous souls. It’s a country stricken with extreme poverty. High illiteracy rates. High birth rates. High crime.

A great part of the tourist industry is Siem Reap and the Angkor Temple Complex. Within this complex and in the three major cities of Cambodia, the children are exploited in order to make money off of the sympathies of tourists. It works. These are children of the Khmer. The children of Cambodia. The children of Angkor. Some. They’re simply adorable. You want to pick them up and hug them and make it all better someway. Anyway. Some will annoy the hell out of you. They’ll make you want to scratch your eyes out. Scream at the top of your lungs for them to get away. So many I wanted to adopt. Take home to my Momma or Sister to give them a good home. I have come to believe that every child deserves a good home. Children deserve a chance. These children are severely handicapped. Not physically. Socially. Economically. In many cases, emotionally. They didn’t ask to be born. But birthed they were. Brought into existence in a world of abject poverty and near hopelessness. My heart went out to these children. Many of whom are loving, adorable, huggable. Eminently lovable. You’ll see just what I mean in the above video.

Most, if not all, of the children seen here work from 7 or 730 AM to 9 or 10 PM. I’ve seen some of them out with their mothers begging or selling food ’til 1 AM. Not the life for a child. When do they get to just be children?

Another strange experience for me were the “beggar costumes.” The faux beggars. It must happen elsewhere. But I don’t think they are as brazen as what I witnessed in Cambodia.

Srey Mao and I had finished our day exploring the Angkor temples for the day and headed back to my hotel room. While passing Angkor Wat, we stopped to grab a beer and watch the sun go down over the great temple. As I did, a mother and 3 children approached us looking completely destitute and pitiful. They were filthy. So I bought some food and gave it to the mother. They went off to eat. The sun went down. I continued upon my path feeling good about having done something nice for someone.

I dropped Srey at the Banana Bar on Pub Street where she is manager. Then returned to my hotel. Grabbed a shower. Dressed and found my way back to Pub Street. By this time it was 9 PM. I sat and drank a few beers with Srey. Then walked over to the Temple Club for a few games of pool with the local gals. The Temple Club is one of the best places in Siem Reap to catch a game of pool. It’s also a great place to watch the Apsara Dance. (I will put some videos of this on the blog at a later date.) Each visit to Siem Reap, I find my way to the Temple Club. I love watching those beautiful little Khmer ladies re-enact the dance of the Gods. And I love to play pool with cute little Khmer women. I played pool for an hour or two and proceeded to get fairly well sauced on the old standby Jack and Coke.

Back in Kentucky, I’m a Kentucky Bourbon man. Rarely drink anything else. I’ll hit Jack sometimes in Kentucky. But usually only when I am first returning from overseas. It’s a habit. Overseas. No one knows Kentucky Bourbon. There is one bar that I have found from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur that serves Maker’s Mark and I once found a bottle of Elijah Craig at a liquor store. Both establishments are in Saigon–Ho Chi Minh City. I guess the communists like good bourbon.

At any rate, I finish playing pool and walk over to the Banana Bar to pick up Srey Mao. She and I return to the Temple Club and sit out on the patio.

That’s when I spot her. (Reminds me of Prince and Raspberry Beret. lol)

The little girl from our “sunset and beer” viewing of Angkor Wat. She is cleaned up and changed into a different set of clothing. I just start to laugh. Rolling up directly behind her is her little sister. Finally, here comes brother. By this time, I am laughing loud and hard. I can barely breath. I realize immediately what I’m seeing. What I saw earlier. The scam that these kids mother plays out every day. Srey looks at me like I’m insane and asks what is wrong with me. Why am I laughing? I point out the kids. She sees it and starts to laugh as well. So I tell Srey to call them over. I ask them to join us and I’ll buy them supper. Srey and I start to poke and prod our way around the subject of their little subterfuge. Whose idea is this scam? Why are they doing it? How long?

So we slowly pull the story out of them. They tell us that their father abandoned them and moved on to Phnom Penh and disappeared. Mom has them dress down in rags to look destitute so they can beg for money. Apparently, Mother can barely write. In typical Khmer fashion she is uneducated. No job. No prospects. It’s either beg or starve. So they ditch their good set of clothes in an alley. Put on rags. Beg for money for food and clothing. Trying to save up money for a simple room to live in.

Honestly, I can’t begrudge that. It may have been an over-dramatization. Even so, these kids were so happy to be eating that I can’t see how it could have been an act. Afterward, I felt so sad for these children that I purchased food for about half the kids on the street. They all shared. No one fought. One little girl came up and held my hand for the longest time. I wish that I had my camera to take a photo. She was adorable. I left that night like most nights in Cambodia with a new appreciation of the life with which I have been graced. Fortune by birth. This old Kentucky boy has traveled to many a place about which many can only dream. I’ve had experience after experience that has enriched my life. Made possible by the simple accident of fate by which I came to be born American.

I know that some of my fellow Americans enjoy poking fun at those who say that America is the greatest nation on earth. But the simple truth is that everyone born in America is blessed. We have the means to lift ourselves up from our modest roots. Our destitution if that is our lot in the beginning. We have the tools to overcome our challenges. Much of the world does not.

To have been born in America is truly a blessing.

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