The Ferryman | Azam Ahmed | Granta Magazine

The Ferryman

Azam Ahmed

‘I do not do this work for the government, or the Taliban, or even the men who I collect from the battlefield and return to their loved ones. All these years I have done this for God.’

My wife will tell me I smell of death tonight. She will leave two plastic tubs of water beside our door, one for my clothes and the other to bathe myself. She does not allow me to enter our home on nights like this, until I have shed the odor of the dead.

My friends snicker when they see the steaming tubs of water, which she heats to break the chill. They laugh because my wife tells me when I must clean myself. My neighbors respect me, though it is true that a woman directing a man is unusual. But these men do not know what I owe her.

Erasing the smell depends on the manner of death, and over the past five years I have become an expert. The odor of burn victims, for instance, is easier to erase when the burns are fresh. A simple bath will do. The scent of the decomposed requires many scrubbings before it goes. One must shampoo their beard and brush under their nails. You cannot overdo the rinsing.

In my village, I am an elder. Along with a few others, I make community decisions, handle disputes and am well regarded for my fairness. But behind my back, I know my people find me unusual. Children run up to me and bury their faces in my clothes, no doubt because their parents have told them of my occupation. Adults do not ask me the questions typical of our culture. My answers frighten them.

We are Pashtun farmers, all of us, growing pomegranates and grapes on fertile soil fed by the Arghandab River. Kandahar pomegranates are famous throughout Afghanistan, and we even send them across borders when the season is right. But I seldom farm anymore, not since the war picked up. Now my five sons tend our land, though they still ask me for advice sometimes to let me know I am not too old to help.

But this morning, as I finish my prayers, I receive a call from Commander Farhad. My wife is stirring in the kitchen, my sons preparing to leave the house for the day. The light of a yellow morning strikes the bread and sweet green tea my wife has laid out for me to eat.

‘Malik, there has been a very serious air strike in Khakrez district,’ he says right away. ‘The Americans accidentally killed some of their own men, some of my Afghan police and maybe one or two Taliban.’

‘Do you know how many and where exactly?’ I ask, grabbing the disk of naan and tearing off a piece between my thumb and finger. Unlike my neighbors, I do not hate these foreigners. But I have seen their air strikes before, the fiery ruin, and lost friends to them. I cannot help but think there is justice in the Americans killing their own.

‘Yes, there should be three of them. Their commander is here now, and he wants to know if you will help us,’ he says, his breath growing heavier. ‘As for where it took place, what does that matter? The whole district belongs to Raheem Gul.’

Then, softer, he says: ‘Aziz Kako, it is important. The Americans are asking.’

What Farhad really wants is for me to help him win favor with the Americans. For officials, they are very useful people to have on your side. Powerful men in my province have solicited the Americans to settle disputes with their enemies. Others have become wealthy beyond imagination. Farhad thinks I will be as eager as him to help these foreigners. I am not.

‘Fine,’ I respond, letting go of my doubt. I set the piece of bread back down. ‘I will try, but tell the American not to expect anything.’

When we have finished, I call Raheem Gul. Because there are Americans involved, the negotiation will be harder. He and I have a relationship, but these fighters are strange and unpredictable people. The years have hardened them beyond reason.

‘Why should I turn over the bodies of these invaders to you?’ Raheem Gul barks on the phone. I can usually tell when he is trying to provoke me and when he is being serious. Today I cannot.

He has never had his hands on the bodies of dead American soldiers, and I believe he is weighing their worth in his head. For a mid-level commander who spends nine months of the year in the dry mountains and deserts of the south, the ownership of American bodies is a powerful advantage.

‘Because it is the same arrangement, with the Afghan government as with the Americans,’ I explain, knowing it is untrue. For the most part, the deal is Afghans for Afghans, though sometimes there is a Pakistani or Uzbek. I once transported a white Chechen with hair the color of saffron and eyes of lapis. But the Americans will not be the same. And in truth, they are not to me, either.

Raheem Gul grows quiet and I know he is thinking it over. I eat during his silence, enjoying the dull salt and crunch of the bread and the sweet earthy flavor of the tea. He is not a stupid man. My personal request has both troubled and trapped him. I have done many things for him, driven to the rough edges of the province to collect the bodies of his fighters simply because he asked. He cannot easily tell me no.

‘I will consider it,’ he replies. ‘There are Afghan forces too, which I will prepare for you to pick up. Then we can talk about the Americans.’

I have seen dead Americans before. A few years ago, I watched a bomb explode beneath one of their convoys as it passed through Kandahar, breaking open the side of one of their giant, sand-colored trucks. Heavy smoke filled the area. People gathered nearby, afraid to help. Eventually, the survivors pulled two bodies from the wreckage, one burned black, the other twisted like a child’s toy.

The drive to Khakrez district is a stretch of endless brown desert, with hardly a color or feature to entertain the eyes. The nomadic Kuchi tribes occupy much of the land because it is no good for farming.

Two years ago, the Americans built a road through Khakrez, the kind of project that changed the way Afghans looked at them. And not in a good way. The district governor made a fortune, along with the Taliban commander he paid to allow the construction to go forward. But today, at least, I am grateful for it. The paved road makes the trip easier for Bilal, my long-time driver, and me.

In the car, Bilal listens to Pakistani music. The heavy thumps rattle his broken speakers as we drive over the naked land between Arghandab and Khakrez. I warn him that we must turn the music off once we get further into the district: the Taliban will not like it. He nods, then lights a cigarette, another vice the Taliban forbid.

My youngest son sometimes asks what life under the Taliban was like. I tell him this story: when they arrived in our village, they captured the mad dog Ruhullah, a warlord who severed the hands of farmers who refused to give him crop payments. The fighters made him walk on his hands and knees with a rope around his neck like a leash. When everyone had gathered, a gunman put a Kalashnikov to his head and pulled the trigger, without a word. They left his body in the square for three weeks.

Bilal and I arrive early at our destination, which I do not like. We pull off the side of the road into an open field of brush and stone north of the district center. The Taliban are a suspicious lot and they will ask more questions if we are here waiting for them. Air strikes have made them paranoid. Bilal opens his door to release the heat. He stares out at the run of the land searching for signs of smoke to tell us where the air strike hit and therefore the direction we will be heading. Distance is hard to gauge here.

An old Toyota hatchback pulls up with five men inside, their machine guns tucked between them. Raheem Gul steps out of the front passenger seat and motions for me to come over to his vehicle.

‘How long have you been here,’ he asks me, scanning the sky.

‘Five minutes,’ I say. ‘The road was faster than we expected.’

Raheem Gul says nothing, continues looking at the cloudless blue overhead. He motions two of his men over. They squeeze out of the car, adjusting their gun straps with the empty eyes and stone faces that I have come to know these men by.

The men search us. They slide their hands into my pockets, pulling out my identification papers, money and telephone. They scan my phone for recent calls and run their hands over my waist and legs to make sure I have no tracking devices on me. When they are satisfied, they look to Raheem Gul.

‘Get in the back seat,’ he tells them. ‘You, too,’ he says, pointing at me.

In the vehicle, Raheem Gul says nothing. Bilal has thankfully cut the radio and hidden his cigarettes. We follow his men’s vehicle, cutting through the bumpy plains toward the horizon. I will not ask about the Americans again, at least not now. My question will only make him more defiant.

Villages appear to the north, built of the same earth that sits beneath them. There is little evidence of life: no animals, no crops, no people. Everything hidden behind thick mud walls. After twenty minutes, we see a thin stick of smoke rising beyond the road, evidence of a large bomb.

Over a ridge, I can make out the contours of a crater, maybe a kilometer from a village I do not know. The driver in front is very careful now. He has slowed his vehicle and moved off the road, tracing the map of roadside bombs planted to keep out the unwelcome.

We drive like this for ten minutes before we enter the village, where a small gathering sits outside the mosque. The men are wrapped in white cloth to shield them from the open sun. Raheem Gul walks Bilal and me to the entrance where Farhad’s police have been placed in the courtyard. Their bodies are torn apart. In some cases, body parts are piled on top of torsos. It smells of iron and explosives.

‘You can start with these,’ Raheem Gul says, kicking off his sandals to enter into the mosque. ‘My men can help you.’

Bilal and I begin with the more complete remains. There are two. The villagers have laid the corpses on wool blankets and we grab the edges and start the difficult work of bringing them to the vehicle. Thankfully the attack is recent, and the rot has not set in yet. The heat from the blast must have sealed the wounds, because there is little blood. Raheem Gul’s men watch us without saying anything.

Not to be offered tea is considered an insult in our culture, but I do not take offense in circumstances like this. Bilal winks at me moments later when Raheem Gul emerges from the mosque with a thermos and tray of glasses. We finish loading the second full corpse into the trunk, a young man with a faint dusting of facial hair, and Raheem Gul pours the tea.

‘They will finish with the last two or three,’ he says, pointing at the pile of body parts. His men say nothing but begin grabbing the arms and legs and stacking them in the center of the blanket. They take the corners of the cloth and tie them together in knots over the center of the remains, forming a bundle. Then two of them heave the package up and walk to my car while Raheem Gul makes his way out of the courtyard and onto the street.

Outside, the sun is bearing down in full strength. Another day and the smell of the bodies would fill the entire village. Raheem Gul looks in the direction of the crater, where the traces of smoke have started to fade. He has left the Americans down there. We will negotiate on site.

The walk down to the crater is not far, but requires making our way through the village. The mud walls hug the edges of the footpath, each compound bordering the next. Farmers have irrigated water through a channel that flows downhill. A dull mountain leans overhead.

There are few villagers outside at this hour. The men will be in the field, the women and children inside their homes. These are all Pashtun families living under the thumb of the Taliban. For them, there is no government and what little they see of it is corrupt and immoral, two things no Afghan can openly accept.

Past the village we come to another road, also unpaved. Raheem Gul walks in the exact center of it and I fit my shoes into his footprints until we have reached a slight valley where fields stretch into the distance.

‘There,’ he says, drawing his long arm in front of him, pointing to a small mound to the side of the crater. ‘You can see your friends.’

Raheem Gul wants to insult me, but I do not mind. Many of his men died and he is angry at my dispassion, my willingness to aid those who brought fire from the sky. For the Pashtun, this is treachery. We fight one another as men. To have our lives taken from above, without warning or even a chance to survive, is an act of God. That the fire comes from the infidels burns him inside as well.

‘Will we be able to bring the car down here?’ I ask, pushing him to accept my request to collect the bodies. ‘Carrying them up the hill will be very difficult for Bilal and me.’

‘Who said you can take them?’ Raheem Gul asks, scanning the field where a father and son are harvesting wheat. ‘I do not think we will even bury them.’

Even Raheem Gul, a hard and bitter man whose compassion has been scrubbed away, sees that this is the ultimate disrespect. Even he cannot hate the Americans so much.

‘Even for them, you must perform the burial,’ I say. ‘Even if you do not let me take them.’

Whoever then acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you,’ Raheem Gul recites, countering my words with those of the Quran.

Raheem Gul sees only those with blood on their hands as righteous. I am a useful tool, a necessary figure in the long war, but he does not respect me as a Muslim. I am not a fighter. He will try to batter me with verses, but I will show him how I fight.

The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah,’ I say back to him, challenging the depth of his faith.

Before he can respond, I have another ready: ‘And good and evil are not alike. Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend.

Raheem Gul turns to me. He grabs the length of his beard with a gnarled hand and clears his throat. I have pushed him very far, perhaps too far.

‘Will we trade verses then, Malik?’ he asks with a slanted smile. ‘Come, let us see them.’

We walk the remaining distance, roughly two fields, to the site of the blast. The dead Americans are stacked on top of one another, stripped of their weapons and armor. There are three of them and they look smaller than the ones I saw in Kandahar. They are like children now, alone.

‘They don’t even know what they are fighting for,’ Raheem Gul tells me. ‘Why should they be honored?’

‘Burial is not an honor,’ I say, feeling almost sad for him. ‘It is your duty as a Muslim.’

A man is cutting wheat with his son in the distance. There is no wind to cool them, but they will carry on until the call to prayer.

‘I know you would like to take these men back with you, Malik, but I cannot help you,’ Raheem Gul says before making his way up the hill. ‘Their bodies will remain here so they can count their losses as we count ours. You will take those Afghan puppet soldiers with you, but the Americans will stay.’

I do not follow Raheem Gul back to the mosque, and he does not call me up. I squat beside the bodies instead. Their smell is starting to emerge. In a day or two, the odor will be so strong the farmers will halt their harvest. In five years, I have buried 748 men and I can tell you this: we are all hardened by this misery. Some have lost sons. Others land. But there is nothing so rigid as a man robbed of his humanity.

No one will remove the corpses until Raheem Gul gives his permission, a cruelty forced upon everyone. He is finished with our negotiations. He will expect me to leave soon but will not insult me by escorting us out. He has given enough insult for one day.

At the top of the hill, I see him enter the mosque with his men, who leave their weapons at the door, leaning against the outer wall. Such men divide their time between fighting and praying, two things that could not be more different. I wonder what that does to them, if it explains them somehow.

I make my way back up the hill, tracing the footsteps of Raheem Gul once more. I say salaam to a few of the villagers along the way. A man missing his right arm below the elbow carts a bucket, a strip of fabric tied to its edges and slung over his body. The azan begins suddenly. Although I know it is time for noon prayers I have forgotten Bilal is waiting for me outside of the mosque. He will not join the Taliban for Zuhr prayer. He blows over a cup of steaming chai and takes a short sip.

‘They have all gone for prayer,’ Bilal says.

I scan the area for any of Raheem Gul’s men. If the mullah spends a long time on the Khutba, it could be half an hour before they return. Prayers last longer on Friday. Bilal takes another sip as he watches me.

‘What did Raheem Gul say,’ Bilal asks.

‘He will not give us the Americans,’ I say. ‘He will not even bury them.’

‘Farhad will not be happy,’ Bilal says, laughing. ‘He will have to find another way to feed on American dollars.’

‘I don’t give a damn about Farhad,’ I fire back at Bilal, who jumps at my words.

‘Come, we have work to do.’

I have no special love for the Americans, or desire to make Farhad appear more useful to his military friends, but I will claim these bodies. The Quran tells us to look neither east nor west but to believe in Allah and spend of ourselves on the needy, whether orphans, wayfarers or captives of war.

‘Malik, do not be too clever,’ Bilal warns me. ‘Where are you going?’

He pours his tea onto the ground and pops up beside me. I start walking down the path again, scanning for footprints in the dry earth.

‘Wait,’ I say, retracing my steps back to the wall of the mosque. ‘The guns.’

Bilal backs away and shakes his head.

‘Are you crazy, Malik?’ he asks. ‘He will kill us before we leave.’

‘Then he will be forced to do so without his guns,’ I say. ‘Get the car.’

Bilal stands in shock, his head tilted slightly, holding his empty cup. In our three years together, he has never questioned my judgment, never hesitated. We once spent three days carting the corpses of fifteen dead Taliban, swollen with rot and fluid, into the pink deserts of Registan. We have traveled the whole of the south in his yellow taxi, carrying the bodies of the war dead for all sides: soldiers, police, Taliban and now, I think, the Americans. What Raheem Gul does not understand is that you cannot draw a line. I do not do this work for the government, or the Taliban, or even the men who I collect from the battlefield and return to their loved ones. All these years I have done this for God.

Raheem Gul and I are not dissimilar in that way, only he does not see it. While he prays we will see who does God’s work. I collect the weapons, five in all, and put them in the back seat between the bodies of the Afghan police.

Bilal opens the driver’s side door of the car and sits himself down, leaning his head over the steering wheel. He knows I will not back off. He turns on the car and slowly begins to follow me down the path.

This is our routine – I walk the route I have been shown, and he trails closely behind. You would think that tire tracks would not be able to trace the steps of a man, but once I have the course I am an expert at seeing the signs of disturbed earth that signal buried bombs.

We make our way down the hill, past a few farmers still on their way to the mosque for salat. They look at us with semi-interest; a funny old man walking down their hill while a yellow taxi follows him like a lost sheep. A few offer quiet salaams to us. My heart knocks in my chest the farther we go. Over the loudspeaker, the afternoon prayers begin.

Raheem Gul is a powerful man with friends across Kandahar, and the Taliban have long memories. I will go to Quetta if we make it out and plead my case there. Perhaps my old friend Muheeb will even forgive me. My wife will ask me about my day when I come home tonight, and I will tell her what I have done. She will think me stupid. She will tell me I have killed her husband and that she is now a widow. She will not be wrong to tell me these things.

At the site, Bilal opens the back of his taxi and spreads another blanket over the remains of the Afghan officers. We are close enough to the bodies that anyone who was wondering what we were doing now knows our plan. I do not look back up the hill. It will only distract us.

Bilal fits a blue pair of rubber gloves over his hands. The bodies have been stacked along the edge of the blast crater. The top one is in good shape, having avoided the worst of it. His skin is white like bread, dusted in a coating of black powder. I am surprised to see a boy not much older than my son in this uniform that once frightened all of us.

Bilal and I grab him from either side, beneath the chest with one hand and his left and right leg with the other, like a sack of grain. We toss the body onto the blanket. The Khutba is starting now, giving us perhaps fifteen minutes before the men notice their guns are gone. The topic is suffering and death, oddly appropriate. Though it is foolish, I stop to listen.

‘Every soul will taste death,’ the mullah says, reading from the Holy Quran. The men in the mosque, Raheem Gul and his followers, know more than the taste of death, I think. They have feasted on it and it has soured their ability to appreciate anything else.

It has soured mine, too, but in a different way. I can no longer eat cooked meat. The smell makes me ill. My wife cooks our rice and vegetables without lamb or chicken, a meal most Afghans would find poor. I think of her now, hanging wet clothes in the courtyard, boiling the pilau for dinner, heating the water for my bath over an open fire with bricks on either side to hold the pot.

Bilal grabs me by the arm and shakes me.

‘Malik, what the hell are you doing?’ he whispers, jerking his head in the direction of the car.

I scan the horizon, searching for villagers racing down the hill. It is too early for that, I think. Bilal hurries over to grip the next body. This one is slightly larger, and his skin is black, not from burns or coal, but from God.

The final body is far heavier, and more destroyed than the others. This man must have been close to the blast because his arms dangle loosely, the flesh of his insides exposed. Bilal grabs another wool blanket from the car and we roll the American onto it. His face stares at me as we lift him with the sheet. For some reason his body has decomposed faster than his friends’.

Bilal lights a cigarette as we place the final body in the car and shut the trunk.

‘We must hurry,’ I tell Bilal. I can see movement atop the hill. A small gathering of elders and young boys are leaving the mosque.

Bilal starts the car and we take the dirt road around the village, which connects to the field about a half-kilometer from the blast site. We cannot afford to drive through the village again – even without their weapons the Taliban can stop us easily. But we do not know this other path, which will have more bombs buried in it.

Bilal is trying to balance careful driving with our need to flee. Coming down the hill, a few of Raheem Gul’s men race after us, some with shovels, others with hoes. I grab Bilal’s arm. He manages a smile and turns on his music, then turns it up as high as he can. The Pakistani pop screams from the windows as he races down the road. I catch a glimpse of Raheem Gul just before we break around the bend of the hill. I believe I see him smile, though not in a happy way.

When we are back on the highway, Bilal lets out a frightened laugh and turns down the music. I would like to tell him that I will take full responsibility for what we have done, but the gesture would not matter. He will pay, as I will.

I ask Bilal to stop by a culvert in the road, walk around the back of our car and begin pulling the rifles from the trunk. I carry all five down the steep bank and toss them into the dry tunnel beneath the road. I will call Raheem Gul, perhaps tomorrow, and tell him where I have hidden his weapons.

Inside the car, Bilal sighs. He is disappointed that I have left the guns, but he knows why and will not question my actions. We may have stolen the American bodies, but we are not thieves. I dial Farhad’s number.

‘Do you have news, Malik?’ he asks, answering on the first ring.

‘We are driving to the city now and should be arriving within
a half-hour,’ I respond.

‘You have all three of them?’ he continues.

‘Please make sure the gates of the police compound are open,’ I say before hanging up. I have never spoken to the commander like that before, but I am in no mood to accommodate him.

I am sure the Americans are pressuring him, perhaps even threatening him, to get their bodies back. I am certain it is no Afghan filling him with fear.

‘Will they kill us, Malik sahib?’ Bilal asks, plucking another cigarette from his pack.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Our fate is in the hands of God.’

As Afghans, we say this on cue, as a matter of course, though its meaning differs every time. Will I make it to the wedding? If God wills it. Can you lend me your car? If God wills it. Will the harvest be fruitful this year? If God wills it.

‘Farhad better have a suitcase of money for us,’ Bilal says, blowing smoke from his window. ‘What do you think, Malik? Will we be rich?’

‘If God wills it, Bilal,’ I say, smiling.

When we pull into the compound, Farhad is outside, agitated and pacing. The Americans are not with him, but their vehicles are parked in front of his office and several of their soldiers stand around it, smoking. They do not look at us.

Bilal parks away from them, but close to the entrance. He scans the American faces, then Farhad’s, and grunts. I know what he is thinking: he is disappointed that these soldiers are the ones he risked his life for. They look nothing like the fragile bodies we stole an hour earlier.

Farhad runs up to the car and opens my door.

‘You have done well, Malik,’ he tells me with an embrace. As he hugs me, he peers into Bilal’s trunk to count the bodies. ‘Our friends will be very happy. I am sure they will reward you.’

The Americans offer no help as Bilal and I begin removing the bodies. A few gather nearby to watch; some curse silently, others shake their heads. I cannot fathom their grief – I have not seen it, and these are a people whose inner lives are strange to me. We lay the bodies on the ground, over another cloth that Bilal has unfolded.

Farhad rushes me to his office where the Americans are waiting. I pull back and reach once more into Bilal’s car for my pato. I snap it open and cover the dead Americans with it, enough so that their faces are not exposed to the sun. One of the soldiers, a bit older than the rest, watches me. He nods slightly.

Inside Farhad’s office, the Americans are sitting on his couches with their boots on, legs spread wide. They have steaming cups of tea and platters of raisins and nuts. A picture of President Karzai, flanked on either side by bouquets of plastic flowers, is mounted on the wall behind Farhad’s desk.

The men do not rise when we enter the room.

‘My friends, Mr Malik has collected the bodies of your men from Khakrez,’ Farhad tells the Americans, who seem to barely register the news when translated. ‘They are outside now, for you to take back to your base.’

The Americans stand. One rubs his hand on his pants before sticking it out for me to shake. The other stands off to the side, staring out of the window at the trucks. Their translator, a young boy dressed in the American military uniform, waits for the Americans to respond. They do not. He and Farhad look at one another with the panic shared by men who depend on these Westerners.

‘How’d he find ’em,’ one of the Americans asks the translator.

‘I know the commander in the area,’ I reply. Farhad nods in agreement, watching the faces of his American friends. ‘I have brought his men’s bodies back to him in the past.’

The American curls his lips and nods, as if I have told him that I am a Taliban myself.

‘So let me get this straight – you deal with the Taliban directly, go into their areas, bring them their dead, and you’re not a Taliban?’ Farhad’s face is frozen in a mock smile, his eyebrows raised.

The American is standing with his hands on his hips, his chin out. His colleagues say nothing, their faces as blank as water. I consider telling the story of how we came to collect the bodies, the price we have paid to return these corpses. But I do not.

‘Don’t you know?’ I say to the American, to the translator, to Farhad. ‘We are all Taliban.’

Farhad lets out a chirp. The translator, I can tell, will soften my words. I ask the boy not to.

For a moment, the room is silent. Then, in a sudden burst, like he is choking, the American starts laughing. He closes his eyes, bends slightly at the waist, almost as if he is crying. His friend remains silent, but his posture eases.

‘Well, hell,’ he says to the translator. ‘That’s the damn truth.’

Without another word, the Americans leave the room. Farhad, stunned by the sudden departure, stares at me for a moment and then follows behind them. Outside, the Americans collect the bodies, place them in the back of a large truck and speed off towards their base, about six kilometers down the road.

I pluck my pato from the ground, where it has been tossed, and bundle it in my arm. Farhad continues to stare at the trucks as they vanish into traffic. He has lost face because of the Americans; even he cannot deny this. I will not press him, or stay for tea or an explanation. I will go home to my wife and tell her what I have done, what has happened.

She will scold me and then serve me food and tomorrow I will await more calls. 



Photograph © ABBAS / Magnum Photos

Azam Ahmed

Azam Ahmed is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Formerly based in Kabul, he has written extensively on the Afghan war. He has also covered the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq.

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