Monday, April 30, 2007

Those Dark Eyes

So after two weeks of “toughing it” in Gbarnga I returned once again to Monrovia. I do not intend nor do I wish to capture my experience here solely based on the happenings of Monrovia (as it would not be fair or just) but I have a story to tell.

Monrovia seems to be a strange and ironic city; an anomaly that clearly has very little in common with the rest of Liberia. It seems important to keep emphasizing this reality because if not, this reporter is relaying a microscopic version of a much bigger picture. Stated another way, it would be like describing New York State solely through a lens focused on New York City. If you completely ignore the daily grind of Albany, Rochester and Ithaca you are, at the end of the day, describing an entirely different state. However, one significant thing Monrovia has in common with the big apple is its cost of living. The cheapest rental price I have heard of thus far for a one bedroom apartment is 850 dollars a month and more commonly tenants are renting very small stuffy apartments for no less than one thousand US dollars of month. Now, those of you who have traveled to Africa may be thinking of urban hot spots like Cape Town or Marrakech or even Accra but please do not forget – Liberia is considered a hardship post by most organizations (i.e., the American Embassy and the UN) and it has the lowest retention rate of volunteers by most international NGOs. In other words, there are very few residences here worth anything close to one thousand dollars a month. You can call it extortion or you can call it the principle of supply and demand, but for now, I am going to call the whole thing shocking.

But I digress. What I really wanted to share with you was the ‘two cent tour’ I received today from my new Liberian friends, Chris and Mohamed. Chirs and Mohamed are two Liberian men who have survived everything from nearly being conscripted into Charles Taylor’s child armies to living as a refugee and IDP respectively, for 5 and 7 year stints.

Currently, Chris and Mohamed are in a band. I randomly met them during intermission, 2 weeks ago, while they were playing at an ICRC event. They were nice enough guys, they liked my hat, and by the end of the night we were getting along swimmingly. Their band was phenomenal (for those of you who know me and my tendency to behave like a groupie towards just about any musician and his guitar, this is likely not very surprising). Although they were probably impressed with their ability to impress me, what they didn’t know was that they had me an hour earlier with their velvety voices, downy drumming abilities and silky dance moves. After an hour or two of yucking it up with these new acquaintances, we were fast friends. They each had there own fantastic story and I learned they had recently traveled to Portugal and Greece to compete musically. Their contemporary Liberian jams have a slight Rasta flare with a West African base. They were good everywhere and had a 2nd place prize trophy from an international music festival to prove it. In two short months they will be departing for Germany and will stay there for 1 year playing and performing all over the country.

This morning Chris and Mohamed called and wanted to hang out. I agreed but we couldn’t figure out what to do (especially given some of my security restrictions). But, I needed to practice driving my manual land cruiser and they needed to run a few errands - so we compromised. They would give me a tour and I would put on the air-conditioner, make a few stops along the way and come to their next gig. “Fair enough” I quickly replied, “fair enough.” We even managed to get in a few games of billiards along the way.

We met up in Sinkor at the LoneStar cell tower and headed straight for the local YMCA. I had mentioned I loved to play basketball and they told me where I needed to go if I wanted to find a decent pick-up game. If anyone is curious they play at 8 am on Sundays. Upon entering I quickly witnessed some true talent. Messy and lacking in fundamentals granted, but undeniable talent can not be ignored - even in it is in its most raw and unrefined form.

Next we went past Providence Island, a small island off the west coast of Liberia. This island is famous because it is where a large ship (sent by a number of Mississippi plantation owners) dropped off approximately one hundred and fifty thousand freed slaves in veiled effort to “send them home.” After that we went to this massive abandoned hotel called Duko Palace. In reality it is an unsafe skeleton of a building that is run down and rat infested and houses approximately 1200 IDPs (mankind and animals alike). We slowly climbed 11 flights of stairs in the pitch dark. There were no railings and gapping holes in what used to be eloquent marble floors. For a minute I felt like I was stuck in a third world version of Hotel California. A peak down the hallways illustrated room after room of makeshift housing quarters filled with families cooking over charcoal pits, cleaning and going about their daily business. They just so happened to be 9 stories up in dark, humid and musty hallways. The scarcity was invasive and it seemed like prayers were not answered here at all. The unanswered prayers got caught in the dust and grime, making it hard to breathe. If any of you have seen Children of Men the last few scenes are excellent visual comparisons. Upon reaching the penthouse, we stepped out onto a massive desk that offered breathtaking views of every major landmark in Monrovia. It was remarkable.
Directly ahead was only the ocean, to the left was Broad Street and to the left West Point (the most dangerous slum in Liberia). Completely ruled by gangs, even Police officers do not enter West Point without permission from the slum lords. Chris and Mohamed were visually anxious just talking about it. Please note that its namesake is the slightly more familiar but not necessarily less cryptic or enigmatic West Point in the infamous U S of A. When asked if they have ever been attacked or robbed in West Point or anywhere else in Monrovia they quickly disclosed they have never set foot in West Point and “of course” they had many experiences of being robbed at knife point in Monrovia. On more than one occasion they had been forced to give up every material possession they had on their body. Mohamed indicated that just last year he was forced to give up his shirt and jeans and Chris quickly added that he had been robbed of all his money and cell phone only to encounter someone else a few minutes later who was willing to sell him back his very own cell phone. Even though it was evident Chris didn’t have any more money to give, he was given one hour to get some. If he didn’t find the cash he would be jumped again or marked for life as a troublemaker on the streets. The “repurchasing” of your own cell phone quickly became an inside joke we referenced often and I would highly encourage every one of you to avoid misplacing your cell phone around me or you may find yourself charged for it’s safe return.

At the end of the day this place is a mess. Things are beyond worn out. My adolescent pal Liberia seems indifferent and apathetic but every once in a while he looks at me with those dark eyes and I am left with a sense of something. I’m not sure what it is yet but I think it is a feeling of hope tied to how it could feel to look into those eyes one day, after he has been given the chance to heal. This feeling suggests that maybe only he is real and that everything else, the violence, the unemployment, the whole damn mess, is imagined. He has to be real. Just a few short hours after my adventure I look back at my photographs and see him there as true as anything ever was. I can even see glimpses of what he was during his youth, before the war, before the desolation. He was almost smiling in some of the pictures but in others, not at all. Something had made him smile though, but it seems the smile was not for joy. Perhaps it was for me, because he knew I might need it now, afterwards. And perhaps there are days when I will look or feel sad for the same reason, because he seems to have guessed that there would be an afterwards. A snapshot of his youth would have him standing below a mango swinging his stick, not gently, but with that fierce disposition and intelligence shining in his eyes. Even today his posturing suggests he embodies the meeting point of hostility and relentless hope and I am left with conflicting feelings of curiosity, hesitancy, hopefulness and skepticism all in the same instant.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Nomadic Tendencies

Psychiatrists, politicians, tyrants are forever assuring us that the wondering life is an aberrant for of behavior; a neurosis; a form of unfulfilled sexual longing; a sickness which, in the interests of civilization, must be suppressed . . . Yet, in the East, they still preserve the once universal concept: that wondering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.

~ Bruce Chatwin

I open with a quote today because I know people wonder why I do what I do. I want to explain but I fear my words don’t capture anything as it truly is. I don’t want to over or under-exaggerate anything – I want to be candid. But, there is something strange about communicating only by the written word, what I put down on paper is something altogether different from my actual experience in the bush of Africa. The minute my fingers start taping away, a second self beings to surface, conditioned, guarded, forgetful, ecstatic, vain, lyric, discursive; the words becoming what all recorded events become eventually, a false image that is probably a mixture of the known and the unknowable.

I cried in a workshop yesterday. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t expected, it wasn’t all together appropriate, but I cried nonetheless. We were holding a joint training with Medicines De Monde (Doctors of the World). The plan was we (CVT) would cover torture, trauma and PTSD and they (MDM) would cover psychotropics, anxiety and psychosis. It was a great step for my local counselors as it was the first place they could present what they have learned thus far to colleagues they respected. I was surprised by their desire to be good training facilitators (especially given my aversion to teaching) but they worked hard and did a good job.

Towards the end of the day one psychiatric nurse from MDM started talking about how he wanted to admit something. When he was first told about counseling and the counseling process he thought it was a sham and only joined the psychiatric department because it was a pay check and a chance to try something new. It took two full years of attending trainings and building their psycho-social program before he realized how the process of being heard can be healing and that many medical problems are really, at their core, psychological issues. He was great speaker and did a great job of utilizing examples to back up his points. He gradually transitioned into depression and told a story about a dear friend who had committed suicide in 2000 following the loss of a job when Taylor took control of Liberia. He recalled having been approached by this friend a number of times with pleas for help. He didn’t “hear” them and then one day he discovered his friend had taken his own life. Clearly this was not his fault (and he knew this) but today, in this training he reflected back on this loss with a few ‘what ifs.”

I can relate to this because I (and more intensely – my brother) lost a dear friend to suicide the summer after I graduated from high school. I was shocked by my reaction but I think I wanted to commiserate and I was again shocked by the universality of human experience. I think of my friend often but I am not alone in the content and make-ups of my thoughts and today I was confronted by this simple fact. I (and others like me) may feel like nomads, but we can’t escape some universal truths – everywhere you go there is love & loss; excitement & boredom; tragedy & celebration; beginnings & endings. The players may vary dramatically but the content is so very similar that it can feel like a narcissistic wound to our need to believe we are truly unique.

Wondering may re-establish the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe but this harmony may be a by-product of something else. The wanderer has been given the opportunity to resolve their “grass is always greener” dilemma and subsequently decreased the amount of anxiety being experienced by the collective conscience.

My Sista
Sharon my roommate (who given our status as outsiders has quickly become somewhat of a sista) is a beautiful petite Austrian woman of 35. She just returned from America two days ago with HUGE news – She’s engaged! She joined CVT last October and shortly after she arrived she met this charming Ethiopian fellow on the beach in Monrovia. Abbi was here working with the UN and did such a good job with his project that he completed his goals and objectives early and he was being sent home. Home for him was now in DC as his family had been given asylum in the States 15 years ago during a time of war in Ethiopia.

It just so happened Sharon had not been to our head office for orientation because she had been living and working in Ghana for the last 3.5 years and came directly to Liberia after accepting the position. So a few days after Abbi left, Sharon followed. She would first go to chilly Minneapolis for orientation and then join Abbi and his family in DC. They would then take a short excursion to NYC to visit old friends. While in DC, Abbi popped the question and Sharon accepted. He is in the process of applying to graduate programs in public health and she is ABD from a clinical program in Austria. They don’t know how they are going to do it, but they are committed to trying and simply report, “How is it possible that it gets a little bit better ever minute we are together.” They hope to one day live in Africa again together and it seems they were destined to meet and settle on the continent they both hold so dear.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Communication Nuances

I continue to hesitate to capture the nuances of my life here because even though I am living in an English speaking environment I am missing much. If I were to be completely honest I am probably catching about 17% of what is being said. The problem with this is simple: we are speaking the same language – English is Liberia’s national language and everybody here seems to be catching about 72% of what I am saying. This means I can’t ask for a translation; and, one can only say “what?” and “pardon?” so many times before it starts irritating people. At this point I can speak exactly three words in Pelle (the native language for approximately 3 of the 16 Liberian tribes) - Ga a yaillu? (“how much?”) sa na la ma (“show me something”) and am ple (“my stomach is satisfied”). At the end of the day I am left communicating in a fog of incomplete sentences and collective sures and head nods to unknown requests.

The language barrier means I pass the hours ruminating on oblivion – which takes up a surprising amount of time and is something we in the States chronically avoid due to what I believe is a constant state of over-stimulation. Between I-Pods, TVs, cell phones, the internet and golf we are able to be ‘doing” something at all times. Ruminating is left to bride-to-bes who are having a difficult time with soon to be in-laws or table arrangements.

Although there are times it is quite the ego boost to be so recognizable and treated like celebrity, it is not easy. Some people I encounter are looking for a “sponsor.” Sponsor means please give me some money for ________. The requests include payment for everything from school fees to a trip to America or the attainment of a cell phone. Others simply ignore me. Just when I’m feeling disenchanted, different, out of place or unhelpful I have an encounter with a sour-faced adolescent who knows Gwen Stefani or some other pop musician from America. These boys can typically dance to our music with unprecedented grit and grace. I also occasionally meet a well spoken community member who simply wishes to chat. They are all impressed with my ability to sweat and turn instantly pink in this sweltering heat that is sub-Sahara Africa and they often get a kick out of the fact I prefer to walk (rather than ride in the land cruiser) when given the chance.

The psychological wounds are complicated and complex. Many of the women in our groups have survived 3 Liberian wars over the course of 14 years and their children are adjusting to peace rather than warfare. It is not uncommon to hear that women and children were captured by rebel agents and used for forced farm labor or worse. One woman noted that she tried escaping into the bush on multiple occasions. When caught she was forced to watch the killing of her fellow escapees. Most Liberians eventually managed to cross the borders into Sierra Leone or Guinea or went to Monrovia in the late 90s, navigating their way through the bush. Everybody I have met has lost at least one immediate relative and many adolescents are orphans living on their own. People are now returning to their home villages, many with memories of having tried this before only to be welcomed by a new rebel contingent that captured everybody and put them in slave or rape camps. Rebels frequently beat young boys or conscripted then as child soldiers and currently the roads are lined with ex combatants who are being given money and work by a UNICEF reintegration/reeducation program. Most families are still separated with some members living in Monrovia looking for work with all the international NGOs while others remain and work in the local rubber and palm farms.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Welcome to the tale of my first weekend explo to Monrovia. It was interesting to say the least. I arrived back at base on Friday afternoon and Marti (the attorney I met from PAE on the plane ride over from the states) suggested I come by her place. She has a swimming pool and tennis court at her residence compound and although she would be leaving for a lesson I could come and “just relax.” Obliviously this was a no brainer. I had been living simply in Bonga for two weeks: bucket showers, horrendous heat, no refrigeration, a break out of cold sores and uncomfortable wicker furniture suggested that sitting pool side with an ice cool beverage might be nice. Like any 4 star accommodations in a poor country (the 3rd poorest in the world to be exact), it was an uncomfortable break from the bush.

Did I deserve it? Probably not, but it was one of many moments of privilege no doubt. Later that night I went out for sushi with a few new friends and attended a birthday party for somebody I didn’t know – more clicks in the privilege category can be deduced. The only thing that made me feel better about eating some sweet pieces of sashimi was that I knew Momotu, my new friend in Bongo, would have been utterly disgusted by the cuisine and would have ran around the corner for some fufu and cassava had he been around to join us.

Liberia has the second largest UN presence in the world, second only to the Congo. This presence includes everything from peace keeping officers from Ireland, Bangladesh and Nigeria to development and programming representatives from NYC. It also means that the ex-pat community in Monrovia is massive and there are plenty of events on the weekends.

After an evening of good food and socializing, Marti offered to take me home because even though I have been forced to learn how to drive a stick since my arrival in Liberia, I was not about to take on the unlit streets of Monrovia at night. We arrived at my compound a few minutes later but a police car was blocking the driveway so she veered to the right to get around him. This was a huge mistake. There was a drainage system on both sides of the driveway and the right front wheel dropped of the ledge. We were stuck and we had no idea what we were going to do. Immediately after we got stuck the police officer ran across the street and began yelling at us for not simply asking him to move his vehicle – clearly a good point but not very helpful given our predicament. And then something amazing happened. 40 Chinese men, dressed in traditional Chinese attire, came out of no where and picked up Marti’s SUV, moved it over 4 feet and saved us. Like a surreal dream sequence – it happened and then it was over as quickly and quietly as it began. After helping they simply placed the vehicle on safe ground, said nothing and walked away. No bargaining for a tip or sarcastic comments about our driving abilities – they just slipped away into the night. It was like a page out of a comic book and these 40 plus men were the heroes. Where did they come from? What are they doing hanging out in Congo town at 1 in the morning? Where are they going? I had no idea but for that split second – sitting at a serious lean with nowhere to go, I was thankful these men were exactly where they were.

According to unsubstantiated sources this is their story -
These 40 plus Chinese men had been working for a shipping company and were picked up for improper licensing by Liberian authorities. They went to their Embassy for help and were simply not allowed in. Yes that is correct 40 plus Chinese nationals, who clearly were brought to Liberia by somebody as they didn’t swim here and they weren’t here on holiday, were being ignored by their very own embassy. For two weeks they had been eating, sleeping and taking care of their bodily issues just outside their embassy (which also happened to be directly across the street from our compound) and their embassy representatives had decided to pass by them everyday as if nobody was there.

Friday, April 13, 2007



When traveling I have this tendency to personify the places I visit. The following is a brief introduction to some of the interesting characters I have met along the way:

Prague is an eloquent well mannered young lady who has the capacity to steal the line light at any ball she attends. However, she also has a delinquent side that acts out in passive aggressive ways by engaging in poor hygiene and frequenting grungy night clubs. This behavior is considered reproachable by her oppressive ancestors and she relishes in her stubbornness and is proud of her versatility.

Rome is slippery gangster with an ever so slight distain for the world and how it works. With that said, he has the capacity to charm even the most resistant of adversaries with his appreciation for the arts and extravagance.

Sarajevo suffers from an identify crisis. She is filled with conflict and inconsistencies that she would rather avoid or deny. Her father has told her to be tough and resolved with unfaltering faith and a firm perspective about fairness and equity. On a good day she feels like she has accomplished just that; but, her experience to date has left her feeling like an adolescent in the precontemplation stage of dealing with her recent trauma and on a bad day she is edgy, mistrusting and skeptical of just about everything she encounters.

It's difficult to know how to capture Madame Nigeria. She has the capacity to be self-sufficient and successful but appreciates being taken care of and pampered. When worn down or tired, she has the cunning ability to exploit those who have offered support. When well rested and healthy she is the first to offer help to neighbors in need. She is stunningly beautiful with a flare for theatrics and likes to be watched. On stage she is breathtaking and real and this genuineness often stays with her in the dressing room after her performance; but, she can feel lost and alone and has a tendency to fall back on her manipulative ways when necessary.

His presentation interpersonally suggests hostility, glibness and disinterest. However, one quickly realizes this style of engagement is a front: a protective façade of dominance serving as a defense. In reality, he is a frightened adolescent boy on an ankle monitor dealing with the repercussions of committed atrocities. The system isn’t quite sure if it can trust him on the streets but he claims he is motivated and desperately wants to be given a chance. His indifferent veneer hides what lies below, a more vulnerable innocent self that is hopeful and charming but dealing with a childhood filled with pain, suffering and 14 years of abuse. Trust continues to be a burning issue for this boy and yet it does appear he has the capacity for empathy, a positive prognostic indicator. Taken together his risk to recidivate is low but he has a long road ahead of him and many traumas to work through.

Places as People:
Places as People. Things as People. People as People. What a strange way to see the world. No?

Well, given I am a clinical psychologist with a quiet voice that repeats one simple manta anytime I engage with a client ‘it is the relationship that heals’ this world view may make a little more sense. Hopefully it is not so bizarre that it confuses you and leads you to believe I am a psychologist in desperate need of a psychologist. Clearly my impression of these places is unique and personal. It is also influenced by the things that happened to me while I was there. For example, I was robbed by a troupe of adolescents on the Metro in Rome which left me feeling assaulted and alone. And, in Prague, I was called an angle and someone very dear to me expressed loving feelings towards me that had been long denied. In this instance I felt adored and revered and crave these feelings and the view from above.

Current Relationships:
Let me return to our young delinquent Liberia as he is with whom I am presently spending time. Before I arrived in Liberia I was warned about his ways and others freely admit he simply wore them out. Take him or leave him, trust him or question his intentions, like him or hate him - he will have a lasting impact on you.

With Liberia it is a love or hate relationship – appreciating his vulnerabilities when confronted with his defenses doesn’t always look like a viable option but if one is able to see the frustrating parts as a defense against the pain he becomes much more endearing and approachable.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


This is a post about transition. Its settings include Denver,Minneapolis, Janesville, Chicago, Brussels and Liberia. The characters are mostly African and American. The time is 10:55 am in Monrovia, which meansit is 2:55 am in Denver - or at least I think it is: time involves numbersand numbers tend to overwhelm me.

My goodbyes in Denver were hectic and I'm sorry for those I missed – I am already desperately missing my day of the week and the little boy crainewonders; and, I can already predict poor Kristy will be forced into recitingplay-by plays frequently leaving me wishing I had access to real time footage. The training in Minneapolis went well and my time in Chicago was a delight.

I know many of you are quite curious about my father's big retirement party.Well it went off without a hitch, thanks to my brother and Shelley. My presence was a surprise (however my father claims he had a dream I would bethere) - for someone who always thought my work and interest in dream interpretation was slightly bizarre, he sure sounded like a true Jungian when he was interpreting his own dream sequence. His reaction to my arrivalwas much more subdued than my mother's, who was recovering from the fact that her sister and my uncle had also made a surprise appearance from Texas. The toasts were touching and I feel profoundly grateful I was able to be present for a celebration of the man I have always admired most. Hisbravery, idealism, generosity, talent (both in poker as well as in surgery) and outrageous sense of humor were highlighted and observed. My only hopeis that he is proud of what he has managed to accomplish thus far in life.He asserts he has no worries about boredom in retirement and already claims to have no idea how he was able to accomplish anything meaningful while hewas working full time. Together, they plan to travel and explore and areheading to Spain in April and Egypt in January – where I plan to join them for a little R & R.

As is often the case in travel, things didn't work out the way they were planned and rather than arriving in Africa 9 days ago, as expected, I was briefly delayed in Brussels due to airplane problems out of Chicago. Myself and ten fellow 'strandedees' were put up for two nights in Ghent, a smalltown just outside of Brussels. Ghent and its neighboring town Brogge arefilled with canals, castles, dragons guarding the city and amazing waffles, chocolate and beer. They call the area the Venice of the North.Fortunately, due to overcrowding in the airport hotels, American Airlineswas forced to put us in a 5 star hotel with amazing beds fitted withEgyptian cotton sheets – a lovely place to be resting while overcoming aheinous bout of jet lag.

The airport in Monrovia is an eyesore but I quickly realized I have been infected for life and was relieved, like a breath taken from an inhaler, to be back in West Africa. The new president in Liberia has declared a 'zero tolerance' policy on corruption and had apparently cleaned house at theairport a few weeks ago. I arrived to serious staffers in freshly starched uniforms fixated on getting us in perfectly formed lines and putting usthrough multiple checkpoints for what appeared to be nothing more thananother very intense look at my oh so serious passport photo. I was dropped off at CVT headquarters by a friend I had made in Brussels (an American attorney in Liberia working in the justice department training localattorneys). In route to Liberia I also met an ex US military solider who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and is now doing highly paid contract workfor the State Department. When asked what he felt about the war and ourcurrent administration he simply stated: "I just did what I was told to do." He was sharp and sweet and built like an ox and his gentle dispositionand simple analysis of the "facts" puzzled me. The other travelers were all missionary folk heading to Liberia to adopt flocks of children – 4 a piece to be exact. One of them had 9 biological children and 7 other Liberian adoptees at home. This experience is an entirely separate chapter of myexperience to date but please remind me to tell you about it as it was interesting to say the least – a bit like watching Jesus Camp, I suspect.

The minute I stepped outside the airport I was struck by humidity and heat.Although it was already 7 pm, the heat was relentless and intense. The trees and bushes are much lusher than in Nigeria and it is clear I will bedealing with an entirely different beast here in comparison to the dry heatof Plateau State. Although overwhelming, I felt myself giving off a big sigh, delighted to know I have arrived where my heart had been pointing meand I now know that on some level Africa has infected me for life. In spiteof my exhaustion, I found myself grinning. There is something about Africa that got into my blood and stayed there.

Visually, I observed flock after flock of women and children sauntering downthe dusty pothole ridden roads with jerry cans and baskets carrying fish,bananas and peanuts (aka: "grumpy") on their heads. Boys were seen pushing wheelbarrows and playing football in dusty packs. The heat is heinous, theroads are a mess and everything is run by generators, but I briefly hadair-conditioning in my room and there is running albeit cold water and flushing toilets in the house and office.

As a committed traveler and connoisseur of originality, I know that gathering the fruits of wanderlust will hopefully enable me to see the worldwith a wider, more original lens. And, in the words of Mark Twain (and in honor of my father's favorite quote from our recent trip to Arizona),"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

Liberia phone: +231 (0) 690 9880
Liberia office: CVT, 8th Street Beach Side, Sinkor, Monrovia
US Office: Center for Victims of Torture, 717 East River Road, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA

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