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The Karabakh Conflict: Traveling Into a Dark Corner of the Former Soviet Union
(Published in the Santa Barbara Independent)

By Matt Kettmann
Photos by Jonathan Alpeyrie

    Toward the end of my third week in the little known,officially nonexistent republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the answerto everyone's question—"Why are you going there?" —smacked me square on the forehead. The smack was literal, provided by a decorated though drunk colonel from the Karabakh Army who was bumping his head into mine and slapping me on the back during an afternoon of proud toasting to the independence, strength, and natural riches of the Karabakh peoples. Had the shots of vodka been as sizable and numerous as the toasts, we would have all been hammered by now—and we’d only been in the room about 10 minutes.

    My photographer friend Jonathan, our translator, and I were surrounded by a dozen or so uniformed military officers, all of them smoking cigarettes and drinking. There was also a suspicious-looking fellow in a dark blue suit who told Jonathan to put away his camera. We'd been led into this room by a commander whose regiment, based in the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, was renowned as one of the best in the tiny, fledgling republic. Over the next few days, this commander would become our good friend—teaching us how to shoot automatic rifles at night, sharing with us some of his best cognac, even personally driving us home in his Uaz jeep a couple times—but at this moment, we weren't sure what to make of him or his comrades.

    We'd come to the base in the first place to photograph and observe the daily life of a Karabakh soldier, but with a national holiday just two days away—specifically the 12th anniversary of a critical military success during the Karabakh people's war for independence against Azerbaijan from 1991 to 1994—we'd come on the wrong day. The soldiers were being treated to a rock concert in the auditorium—not the normal routine. So our task of putting an accurate face on these people, who, despite a promising democracy and evolving economy in a notoriously unstable region, have lingered in the international limbo of "not officially recognized" for 10 years now, would have to wait.

    We learned that today was not the day over about an hour of translated, pre-vodka conversation with the commander, jibing jovially about the NHL ice hockey playoffs and honestly about the ongoing situation in Iraq. Then he asked if we’d care for a drink. We were game and followed the commander to a small, smoky room down the hall. The scene was disorienting at first—on the television a movie was playing in which black men and scantily clad women were kung-fu fighting—and through the smoke I could see that the black lacquered table was packed with bottles of pricey vodka, fine Armenian cognac, Coca-Cola, and sparkling water. Four shot glasses sat empty, apparently waiting for us.

    Within seconds, we were clinking glasses and downing their contents with vigor, and soon the red-faced colonel was slapping my back and jubilantly head-butting me. "What's he saying?" I asked our translator, confused as to whether this display was affectionate or hostile. Our translator answered with a chuckle that the colonel was now toasting us as journalists who wanted to tell their story to a world that knew next to nothing about their post-Soviet Union battle for independence or their ongoing diplomatic struggle for international recognition. So we slammed the shots again.

    On the eve of our final week in Karabakh, this particular experience—getting drunk with the George Washingtons, Ethan Allens, and Paul Reveres of Karabakh—was an unexpected and priceless treat, the most vivid and bizarre afternoon we'd had yet. It topped off another day of success, for that morning, we were finally allowed access, after talking personally with the Defense Minister, to visit and photograph a hot spot of the ongoing sniper war that plagues the Karabakh-Azerbaijan front line.

    And by this point, it had already been a bountiful journalistic mission. We'd done enough traveling, interviewing, and photographing to come up with a handful of articles, ranging from a standard travel story to a piece on the reemerging Karabakh wine industry to a report on the politics of a region of Christian Armenians surrounded by powerful Muslim nations that, with just the littlest imagination, could serve conflict.

    When we got up to leave a few toasts later and were led down a hall toward some mysterious place—with Armenian and Russian as the lingua francas and almost no English spoken at all, we didn't know what was going on most of the time—I realized that such experiences are exactly why I travel in the first place, to find myself in unique situations among unique people doing unique things. The richness of the experience nearly brought a tear to my eye. But then, maybe that was just the vodka. Out of Soviet Shadows

    Funnily enough, everyone we met in Armenia had heard of Santa Barbara, thanks to the popular eponymous daytime soap opera of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but until late last year, I might have guessed that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was one of the lesser known locales in the movie Star Wars. I began researching the republic’s true whereabouts, history, and current political situation after hearing about the plight of the Karabakhi people through my photographer buddy Jonathan Alpeyrie, who had just returned from the Congo, where he shot a stunning photo essay published in The Independent (“Lost Children of the Congo,” February 17, 2004). Over a sushi lunch, the French-born, American-educated war photographer mentioned that his next trip was to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which I spelled out phonetically and Googled with gusto back at the office, as Jonathan had said he was looking for a writer with whom to travel.

    What turned up were various Web sites discussing the Karabakh war for independence from Azerbaijan, which took place from 1991 to 1994 and their ongoing plight to become recognized as a real country by the international community. It was an enclave of ethnic Armenians that, under Soviet rule since the 1920s, was officially an autonomous region within Azerbaijan, the Karabakhis separated from their Armenian brothers and sisters by a few dozen miles of Azeri-dominated landscape. It was a fairly typical situation rooted in the former Soviet Union, of which Armenia was also an integral part, where disgruntled peoples still struggle daily to become their own nations. But unlike Chechnya, Abzakhia, or South Ossetia, Karabakh seemed pretty stable, with only sporadic gunfire from sniper rifles at the front lines. And while Alpeyrie can usually be found in places where bullets must be dodged, I generally draw the danger line at going to places where I can guarantee being shot at. When I concluded that Karabakh (which translates as “black garden”) was relatively obscure and reasonably safe, I volunteered for the ride.

    Descending into the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, which has a population of two million—roughly two-thirds of the Armenian population—I had expected a cacophony of lights, but the city was strangely dark for a large developing city, at least by our Western standards. On the ground at Zvartnots International Airport, we ran the customs gauntlet, grabbed our stuff, and found our driver, who’d been set up for us at a reasonable price by the president of the Yerevan Press Club, who I had contacted from the States. Our driver spoke absolutely no English, an indication of things to come.

    The 2 a.m. drive into Yerevan took us past a mini-Vegas strip of small casinos right past the airport and a huge booze factory marking the beginning of the city proper. We checked into the Erebuni Hotel, where a dependable yet dreary staff was our introduction to the cold hospitality that survives as a leftover from the Soviet era, when hoteliers and other service workers were supposed to be more utilitarian than nice. And with a watchman on every floor who jumped out of his tiny room every time a door opened, getting in and out of the place always proved humorous, but at least we knew our bags were safe.

    The next morning, I awoke to the constant sound of loud booms and walked out onto our balcony, which overlooked the southern half of the gray city. Though the booms sounded like the marching of some Kalishnikov-carrying army, they turned out to be coming from the cranes that decorated the Yerevan skyline. The reliable rhythm of the booms played the perfect soundtrack to Armenia’s ongoing march of progress. We investigated such progress over the next week, as we got to know the city while obtaining the necessary visa and paperwork for our mission into Karabakh. I began to understand that Armenia was not a developing country in the regular usage of that phrase, which more easily fits into the third-world puzzles of Central America or Africa. Instead, Armenia is facing a much different task, one of redevelopment. As the shadow of the former Soviet Union recedes from Armenia—a shadow that long assured safety, stability, and normalcy under communism—the people struggle to re-establish themselves from the ground up.

    “The Soviet Union was not a country in the normal sense,” a wise man named Gevorg Gabrielyan explained to me in perfect English one evening. “It was the entire world.” Everything, he said, was defined by and derived from the Soviets, so when the Republic fell, the sky came crashing down.

    Now, half the people in Armenia are below the poverty line and unemployment is prevalent—some estimates place the number of unemployed as high as 38 percent —evidenced by the swarms of working-age men who spend most of their time chewing sunflower seeds and congregating on street corners beneath the massive, pink-stoned government buildings built during the zenith of Soviet success. Beggars can be seen in Yerevan now, a sign that the communist times of food for everyone are no longer, replaced by the more cutthroat reality of capitalism.

    Hope is only now starting to return, and faced with internal problems ranging from abandoned factories to politicians who lock up opposition leaders and a continual exodus of Armenians, the dilemma of Karabakh (an arguably rogue state located about 200 kilometers southeast of Yerevan) is not an everyday concern for people of Armenia. The people of Yerevan are certainly informed about the Karabakh situation and have strong opinions, but they’ve simply got bigger things to worry about, especially since the military battles in Karabakh ended a decade ago.

    At the same time, however, the Karabakh situation, when viewed from Armenian eyes, resonates profoundly because many considered the plight of the Christian Karabakhis to be the latest fight against Muslim oppressors. And Muslim oppression is at the essence of what it means to be Armenian, arguably more so than either the Armenian language or Armenia’s allegiance to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an orthodox Christian faction founded in 301 AD, when Armenia became the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion. But thanks to Soviet dominance and the sublimation of all things holy, Armenians moved away from Christianity and began speaking Russian for official purposes as well, leaving a legacy of struggle against the Muslims—from Turks and Azeris to Persians and Tartars—as the remaining beacon of national pride.

    Armenians across the globe are quick to bring up the 1915 genocide, where some 1.5 million Armenians were killed in what was then western Armenia—now eastern Turkey —or sent to die of starvation in the Syrian desert by a radical faction of land- and power-hungry Turks. That holocaust is always on the lips of Armenians largely because a significant chunk of the world—the United States included—has refused to recognize the incident because of alliances with Turkey the only Muslim superpower not run by fundamentalists. The 1915 ethnic cleansing sparked the Armenian diaspora, which explains why there are more Armenians in places like Fresno, Glendale, and Paris than in all of Armenia itself.

    Look at the Karabakh conflict through a similar lens—adding the fact that Armenians generally refer to Azeris as Turks—and it’s clear that Karabakh’s struggle for recognition, which began militarily when Azeris started taking over villages and telling Armenian residents to leave, could have been perceived as the start of the next Armenian holocaust. We got an up-close look at the face of Armenian nationalism on our last day in Yerevan, the annual Genocide Remembrance Day when tens of thousands flock to the genocide monument on a hill overlooking the city to bring tulips and flower arrangements to place around the rim of the eternal flame. By the end of the day, the flame was barely visible from behind a wall of petals and stems. Throughout the morning’s solemn procession, I noticed a few extra tears shed and flowers laid for the 5,000 or so who died during Karabakh’s war for independence, for a handful of those soldiers’ graves line the path toward the memorial. Along the Silk Road

    We hired a driver to take us across the border from Yerevan to Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh located about six hours by bus to the southeast. The road passes beneath rugged, snow-covered peaks into alpine valleys of green grass and white ice, and through remote mountain villages where columns of smoke plumed from a house or two. These are the sights of the South Caucasus Mountains, a region whose craggy peaks and impenetrable faades have provided the natural defenses over the past couple millennia to preserve distinct ancient bloodlines and cultures. Muslims live just over the pass from Christians and nomadic shepherds may walk on the south side of a mountain while a stationary farmer plants his crops just around the bend.

    Situated between the Caspian and Black seas, the Caucasus and their temperamental splendor have long been the crossroads of the world, serving as the entry point to Europe or the Middle East, depending on the direction traveled. The Silk Road passed through this range and various tides of Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Turks, Armenians, Russians, Georgians, Tartars, and the like crashed upon these peaks and valleys in the long history of world conquest. As the crossroads of the world since the beginning of mankind, it’s no wonder that the South Caucasus bred the Nagorno-Karabakh situation, where an enclave of Armenians became isolated from Armenia proper after taking off to the mountains (“nagorno” means “mountainous” in Russian) while Muslim peoples flooded the plains. Striking in both appearance and importance, the Caucasus have become the battleground of numerous ethnicities fighting for freedom since the Soviet Union crumbled. From the Chechens of southern Russia and Abzhakians of Georgia, freedom fights are frequent and brutal, and it’s hardly a stretch to say that the Karabakh movement toward independence—begun in 1988 with demonstrations in Stepanakert and Yerevan and made official with a 1991 referendum vote of the Karabakhi people in favor of self-determination—was the final straw on the Soviet camel’s back.

    But while many other former Soviet republics followed Karabakh’s lead throughout the early ’90s and became free with little violence, the newly named Nagorno-Karabakh Republic wasn’t so lucky. Since Karabakh was not a formal republic—but an autonomous region within the borders and control of the Azerbaijan Soviet State Republic—the laws for self-determination established by Mikhail Gorbachev did not exactly apply. Azerbaijan responded to the Karabakh peoples’ vote for independence with an iron fist, taking over villages and mobilizing the military, and the subsequent war for Karabakh independence raged from 1991 to 1994.

    The Karabakh side, bolstered by help from Armenia and, rumor has it, Russia, eventually won the ground battle, which was arguably the last conventional tank-and-troop war of the 20th century. By all accounts, it was an ugly war. The Azeris indiscriminately lobbed Grad missiles into Stepanakert, the Armenians were accused of massacres at the Azeri town of Khojaly. Villages of both sides were burned, and more than 30,000 soldiers and civilians died. More than 50 times that number of Azeris and Armenians became refugees. The Karabakh countryside was littered with landmines that still kill more than one person a month, usually children. And in an economically crushing diplomatic blow, Azerbaijan convinced Turkey to set up a blockade against Armenia and Karabakh; that embargo, which harms humanitarian and development projects throughout the region, still exists today.

    As the Karabakh army pushed into Azeri territories, a ceasefire was arranged in May 1994. A front line was drawn, leaving some lands that were historically considered Azerbaijan under Karabakh control, to provide a buffer region, according to Karabakh military men. Also, a few small traditional Karabakh lands in the north, south, and east remained under Azeri control. Since then, the ceasefire has remained intact, save for an ongoing sniper war that’s killed around 100 soldiers over 10 years. It is one of the few embattled regions on the planet that has not required international “peacekeeping intervention,” of which Karabakhi leaders are proud, but they’re less proud of the battle that’s still being waged by diplomats and international lawmakers: the fight to get the rest of the world to recognize and respect the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as an independent nation. Into the Black Garden

    After nearly 14 hours of driving, our hired car rumbled up through heavy fog to the cliff-top town of Shoushi, the once and future cultural and religious capital of Karabakh that’s become a de facto refugee camp and a telling image of the war’s most destructive results. In the morning, the dizzying, moist mountain fog stayed put, but it did little to hide the destruction of war that was visible right outside our window.

    Before getting back in the car for the short drive into Stepanakert, we took a brief walkabout, finding mostly blown-out buildings and even one unexploded mortar near the recently refurbished cathedral. Like the abandoned villages we’d seen the day before, the sight of children playing on the skeletal remains of former buildings became normal during the next couple weeks, but the first impression left a feeling of hopeless despair and sadness. Indeed, the aftermath of war provides the most compelling argument against armed conflict. Perhaps more foreboding was the realization that such scars of war serve as a ubiquitous yet stark reminder that such conflict in these parts is commonplace. Bombed-out buildings offer only one message—that the next war might not be far off.

    In my pre-trip research, I’d read that Stepanakert was nothing more than a necessary administrative evil, a Soviet-developed capital city of about 30,000 with no aesthetic quality. But with its hilly, tree-lined streets, numerous parks, and pristine setting amid verdant foothills and snow-capped mountains, Stepanakert reminded me oddly of San Francisco, and I quickly grew to like it for its friendly people, reliable restaurants, potable water, and bustling urban feel.

    Our daily routine consisted of leaving our rented flat—next door to the Karabakh president’s house, no less—around 9:30 a.m. and, depending on the day’s itinerary, walking the couple blocks to the Asbar travel agency (which arranged all of our tourist and wine country trips as well as a driver and translator when necessary) or a few blocks more to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who played our advocate in getting important interviews and arranging access to military spots). Along the way, we became familiar faces to the purveyors of restaurants, markets, and Internet cafs, though the staring, pointing, and giggling at our strange clothes by people of all ages —who, except for brightly clothed children, generally dressed stylishly in dark colors —never ceased.

    But despite the growing familiarity, the language barrier blocked even the simplest pleasantries and compliments. I’ve traveled to numerous world destinations, but this was the first time that I’d experienced the comfortable loneliness that comes with not being able to communicate. Pantomiming became de rigueur as a means of communicating while mastering the most basic phrases—“barev” for hello, “merci” for thanks, and “svet lava” for very good—became a priority.

    We spent most of our first week traveling through the reemerging Karabakh wine country and to the numerous historical and natural curiosities that have become mandatory for the 3,000 tourists, most of them diaspora Armenians, who visit Karabakh every year. We saw crumbling monasteries from the 6th century, schoolrooms from the Middle Ages, mysterious church services of the Apostolic church, raging rivers in impressive gorges, wild foxes and birds of prey throughout the ridiculously green countryside, and dozens upon dozens of abandoned and/or war-torn villages. We also spent a day with the Halo Trust, a British nonprofit responsible for clearing the minefields leftover from the war, a particular problem this year because of the bumper crop of wheat. By the end of that first week, we’d traveled to almost every non-militarized corner of Karabakh, a region barely larger than Rhode Island but much larger in experience, thanks to the unrelenting mountain landscape and slow roads.

    Yet our quest to uncover the realities of the political and military situation proved, in line with what we’d been told, to be much more difficult than non-controversial aspects of the Karabakh republic. Our first trouble occurred during the second week, when we were finally granted a trip to the front lines. After meeting with the regiment commander, a friendly war hero who suggested with a chuckle that we keep our heads down when at the front, we followed a pair of officers out past the former Azeri city of Agdham (once a hub of 40,000-plus, but now abandoned and militarized) toward the front line.

    The bushes got thicker the closer we got, and a hush came over the five of us in the car, before nervous laughter erupted when the officers began driving in circles in what was likely a minefield. Our driver, himself a war vet who limps now because of a mine explosion, said something like, “Where the hell are they going?” and his expression of angry fear needed no interpretation. We didn’t blow up, thankfully, but our excitement at reaching this outpost was quickly quelled by a particularly uncooperative officer who wouldn’t allow any freedom and made sure Jonathan only took close-ups of soldiers.

    The day was, in many ways, a bust, and we returned to Stepanakert knowing we needed to talk to the Defense Minister himself if we were to get our way. So began our impromptu tutorial in international diplomacy, as we played ambassadors by offering thanks and praise at every step toward our goal and strived to remain overly polite in the face of frustrating adversity. Within two days of such dialogue with members of both the Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries, we were sitting in the Defense Minister’s waiting room, ready to plead our case. It worked. Not only would the minister personally see to it that our journalistic needs were fairly met, he granted me a 45-minute interview, which was conducted over small cups of the strongest coffee we’d tasted yet.

    The next day we went back to the front, this time in a hotter spot where we had to duck and run to enter the trench. Lined with wood and mortar, these trenches are where every 18- to 20-year-old Karabakh male spends a few months of their lives, watching for Azeri snipers as close as 50 yards away while keeping one hand on the automatic Kalishnikov hanging from their shoulders. While the young men there said their jobs were exciting, most didn’t plan on staying in the military past the compulsory two years.

    Later that day came our vodka-fueled meeting with the commander of the Stepanakert regiment, who would become our confidant over the next week, taking us out to shoot automatic rifles called AK-74s and providing us unlimited access to training drills. Between trips to the base, where we finally got a good sense of the soldiers’ daily routines, more interviews were arranged with the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Chairman of the National Assembly. From those talks, I began to grasp a feeling for what the Karabakh situation was—an underdog war for freedom held up because of the geopolitical situation of the Caucasus and the desires of superpowers such as the United States and Russia.

    But perhaps even more relevant, I developed the notion that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was the shining light of democratic and developmental hope for the entire post-Soviet world. Not only have their elections been deemed fair by international observers, they’ve managed to create an economic system that rewards investment in such a way that other countries facing similar circumstances of conflict and blockade have begun copying them. But despite such apparent against-all-odds success, the Karabakh people have effectively been shut out of the negotiation process altogether, as Azerbaijan strategically denies the republic’s existence and Armenia’s leadership seems happy to play the lone pro-Karabakh negotiator. I began wondering why, if the United States-led Western world is in favor of widespread democracy, why the Karabakh people hadn’t been rewarded for their efforts.

    It wasn’t until I got back to the States and had some breathing room that I realized things were not quite as simple as they seemed. After some more research and interviews, I learned that the Karabakh conflict is so complicated and contentious in both ancient history and modern geopolitics that finding a solution agreeable to all is an impossible task. Not even the shrewdest diplomats—specifically, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell—could muster a deal between the Armenian and Azeri presidents over Karabakh. And typically, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan who do broker a deal are bound to lose at the polls, for any move toward give-and-take becomes powerful fodder for opposition parties. When it comes to talking about a free Karabakh, doom is the prevailing notion in those parts and there’s no shortage of reasons why. Backdraft

    When I got back to Santa Barbara and began digesting what we’d learned in our month in the South Caucasus, it was with a reluctant sense of journalistic duty that I tried to give the Azeri view of the conflict its rightful due. So I began a series of email interviews with an Azeri named Murad Guluzade, whose father Vafa was the Foreign Affairs Minister of Azerbaijan during the war. He was critical but understanding of my dilemma in having seen only one side of the story, and began relaying responses to my biased questions and statements of what I had begun to consider fact.

    His explanation of the situation from an Azeri standpoint was so contradictory and apparently propaganda-inspired—including a claim that all of the monasteries I visited in Karabakh weren’t actually Armenian, but rather Caucasian Albanian, the presumed Christian predecessors to modern-day Muslim Azeris—that it caused me to laugh at times. But even if he was just relaying the latest Azeri propaganda—which can be found with a blatant anti-Armenian bias on almost every Azeri Web site—Guluzade proved both knowledgeable and genuine in his belief that the war was an aggressive act by Armenia supported by that nation’s longtime Russian allies, an attempt to keep the region unstable and under the influence of Moscow.

    I also managed to contact and interview Steven Mann, the American diplomat and South Caucasus expert who was recently assigned to be one of the co-chairs in the ongoing negotiation process under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Mann made it clear that while some positive steps toward negotiation had recently occurred, this was not an easy situation to find either hard truths or agreeable terms. He refrained from giving odds to an expected timeline or outcome and, after we’d talked on the phone for about 45 minutes, wished me good luck in my goal of uncovering the Karabakh conflict with a noticeable sense of doubt.

    Had I been that nave? Could I have been summarily duped by an entire population? Were things not as they seemed, the Karabakh government actually corrupt, the people all told to lie through their smiling lips to visitors from abroad? It’s been almost a month now since I’ve been back, and those questions ring louder in my mind than ever as I try to grasp the reality of the situation. I now understand why all writings devoted to explaining the region turn out to be books and that nothing short of a 10,000-word essay could explain half of the problem. So I won’t even go there for now, because in some weird way, I feel like I know less about the truth of the Karabakh conflict than I did even before I ever heard of the place.

    Tainted by numerous experiences of unbound Karabakhi kindness—from the penniless peasants who without even considering their circumstance would shower us with coffee, tea, candy, and their freshest food to my new friend Artur, a cafe owner who took us out on a vodka-drenched barbecue in the woods, to the young girl in our neighborhood who told me multiple times in her little English, “You are beautiful!”—my heart will forever remain on the side of the Karabakh people. And after witnessing the early machinations of a budding democracy, the astute and forgiving minds of Karabakh’s government, the hope of a resilient economy in the face of a post-war, blockaded world, and the plain-faced reality of an undeniably established country with working infrastructure, no crime, and a painfully learned message of peace, my mind too leans in favor of the Karabakhi cause. But I can’t help shake the notion that had I spent some time in Azerbaijan, interviewing their refugees and veterans, getting wined and dined by their parliamentarians, I might have come to a different conclusion.

    Who’s right, who’s wrong, what should be done? These are questions I’m not qualified to answer. Perhaps the most overriding notion of everyone I spoke to about the Karabakh conflict—from proud war vets and government leaders to young translators and the everyday folk—is that war is bad and peace is good for all. And since nothing short of another war would put Karabakh under Azeri control, freedom for the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic within the next decade is—whether right or wrong—where I’d bet my money. In the meantime, I plan on returning to the magical South Caucasus sometime soon, perhaps this time with a sojourn to Azerbaijan as well. Maybe then I’ll get to the bottom of the story.

Matt Kettmann is a staff writer for The Santa Barbara
Independent and a stringer for Time Magazine

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