AFTER CYCLONE NARGIS: ITS LEGACY, REBUILDING AND MORE OBSTRUCTIONS

ANGER BUT NO DISEASE AFTER CYCLONE NARGIS

The feared 'second wave' of fatalities from disease and lack of relief efforts never materialized. A month after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar. A report citing an assessment by UNICEF of conditions in hard-to-reach areas outside of the town of Bogalay, one of the areas worst affected by the storm, determined "there were no post-cyclone deaths in any of the villages assessed," as well as no signs of acute malnutrition. It also said suitable sources were found for clean water. However, the French aid agency Doctors Without Borders warned that as seasonal monsoon rains become heavier, there will be more challenges supplying aid and maintaining the good health of survivors. [Source: AP, June 5, 2008]

Denis D. Gray of AP wrote: “People were already incensed by the brutal suppression last September of anti-government demonstrators, including the country's revered, saffron-robed Buddhist monks. Then came Cyclone Nargis, exposing the junta as inept and heartless, initially blocking international aid efforts and even now still hampering them. "The people are blaming the government. They are responsible for many deaths. They don't care about right or wrong and they let people die just to hold onto power," said Aung Myoe, a 32-year-old driver in a comment typical of the mood in Rangoon. "In the 'Saffron Revolution' they lost their Buddhist legitimacy; with the cyclone they lost whatever concept of efficacy they had with the public," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown. Steinberg said the junta constantly trumpets achievements in modernizing the isolated and impoverished Myanmar.” [Source: Denis D. Gray, AP, July 2, 2008]

Six weeks after the disaster, the Los Angeles Times reported from Kong Tan Paak: “From the far side of a murky brown river, the only moving thing visible on the ravaged landscape was a tattered maroon cloth, fluttering listlessly atop a tree stripped of its branches. Two Buddhist monks had torn it from the only material they had, one of their own coarse robes. Its message was just as plain: "Alive! Please help." Tropical Cyclone Nargis killed 300 people in this village, wiping away almost every trace of the people, their homes and a monastery. Surviving monks went to a relief camp, but after nearly three weeks, they figured that what they had fled couldn't be much worse. So they took some of the meager rice rations they received from the military, came back and made themselves a tent by stretching tarps over a frame of fallen trees. [Source: Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2008 **]

“There was an unsettling silence. Not a birdsong, a dog's bark or a crying child could be heard -- only the wind and a few buzzing flies. Standing in the blazing sun, chewing on a mouthful of betel, the senior monk, U Pyinar Wata, patiently answered our questions. The monks could make do with the little food they had, he said. After all, Buddha had taught that without craving, there is no suffering. But the monks were worried about a few homeless children in their care. Together, the monks and boys were the only people on their side of the river for miles. Without fresh water, the monks feared, the boys might not last long. What they all needed most, said Pyinar Wata, 60, was a pump and some diesel fuel to run it, so they could empty a 150-square-foot reservoir of seawater and corpses and let it fill with clean rainwater. He might as well have been asking for a rocket to Mars. **

Washington Post reported: “ Aid workers praise villagers' resilience, which they said had helped stave off further deaths and disease. In one village, farmers who own five to 10 acres apiece said they joined together to buy a tractor from officials in Bogalay. They will have to pay in installments over three years, using rice seed and funds they don't yet have, they said. Still, said village elder Tan as he leaned on a bamboo cane, going into debt to grow their own food seemed a better option to the villagers than sitting idle and eating the rotten yellow rice they received as aid. They have to rely on themselves, he said. "Everyone else has their problems, too." [Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008]

Obstructions on Foreign Aid Remain two Months After the Cyclone

Two months after the disaster the Washington Post reported: “Persistent obstruction by the country's military rulers has kept aid at tragically meager levels. International efforts to quickly dispatch emergency assistance were delayed as the country's xenophobic military rulers rebuffed offers of help, denied visas to foreign aid workers and required permits for travel within the country.Aid workers say that the majority of survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis have received at least some help but that few are even remotely equipped to make their way in coming months. Some communities have only recently been reached by aid teams, who had journeyed for hours on foot, by motorcycle and by boat. Many of the restrictions have been eased, but relief workers say they still operate under erratic and constantly shifting constraints. The logistical challenges remain formidable as they scramble to dispatch seed, tractors and tillers to farmers before the rice-planting season ends this month. [Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008 >>]

“Access to the delta remains a concern. In past weeks, aid agencies have had to seek approval for their activities from an ever-changing combination of ministries and local authorities. Trips into the field are systematically monitored. A World Food Program helicopter shipment was canceled by an onboard military agent because flight coordinates submitted by U.N. workers weren't clear, according to a staffer. Workers with a Burmese aid agency in Bogalay said they were repeatedly prevented from reaching the devastated villages of the distant natural reserve by military boats that were patrolling the area. Troops told them they were taking care of the villagers. The area has at least three military bases, according to three agencies that have worked there. "Everywhere we went, we were met by soldiers or navy," said an aid worker with the Noble Compassionate Volunteer Group, which has partnered with UNICEF in the area. >>

“Aid workers and diplomats say the problem at the lower levels is sometimes less willful neglect than incompetence. According to several U.N. officials, there is only one fax machine in the Ministry of Social Welfare, which at times has been largely responsible for processing applications for visits to the delta. But in some places, local authorities have defied their superiors to help in the relief efforts. One Western diplomat said officials in the remote rural hub of Pathein had built a road for supplies, defying senior military officers.” >>

Impact of Cyclone Nargis on Myanmar’s Agriculture and Rice Crop

Michael Casey of Associated Press wrote: “Burma’s rice-growing heartland has been devastated by Cyclone Nargis, experts said, posing worries of long-term food shortages for Myanmar. The Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that five states hit hardest by Saturday's cyclone produce 65 percent of the country's rice. The region also is home to 80 percent of its aquaculture, 50 percent of its poultry and 40 percent of its pig production, the FAO said. [Source: Michael Casey, AP May 7, 2008 /=\]

“Of most concern is the rice production, since the impoverished country has produced enough to feed itself and, more recently, stave off the rising prices that have hit other parts of the region. "There is likely going to be incredibly shortages in the next 18 to 24 months," said Sean Turnell, an economist specializing in Burma at Australia's Macquarie University. "Things will be tough." Now, the country must confront the reality that entire rice-growing regions are under water. Many of the roads and bridges needed to transport what crop can be salvaged may have been destroyed by the cyclone. /=\

“The U.N. World Food Program warned that the rice harvest in the Pegu Division could be lost since it was still in the ground, and future plantings in the delta could be threatened due to "salinity and decrease of nutrients" from the storm's tidal surges. The FAO also predicted that annual crops of rice along with oil palm and rubber plantations "are expected" to be damaged in areas hit by the cyclone. They are sending in an assessment team in the coming days to have a closer look. "There is risk that stored rice seeds kept by farmersusually under poor storage facilitiesmight be affected by the cyclone," the FAO said in a statement. "Some rice crops under irrigation might be affected, if not yet harvested." /=\

According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) News Release; “The five worst-affected areas - Ayeyarwady, Yangon and Bago Divisions, and Mon and Kayin States - are considered Myanmar's food bowl, producing much of the country's staple food of rice and fish, and the overall food security situation in Myanmar is seriously threatened, FAO said. While the second crop of the 2007 rice season was fully harvested before the cyclone hit and no major crop losses are expected in the region, rice already harvested for household consumption was most likely damaged by the storm surge, adding to the precarious food security situation of poor coastal families, FAO said. [Source: U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) News Release, May 9, 2008]

Inland and coastal fisheries, poultry and livestock were also either damaged or lost, according to FAO. An estimated 2 million households were affected, meaning that a significant number of farming and fishing families are in need of urgent assistance. "The hardest hit villages lost all their farming assets, as well as the food stored for the rest of the year," said Anne M. Bauer, Director, FAO Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division. "Add to this the burden of rebuilding their destroyed houses and it is safe to say that these poor farmers will not have sufficient resources to purchase seed, fertilizers and other inputs, protect surviving livestock and replace lost ones, and pay for on-farm labor during critical phases of the farm cycle. Funds are urgently needed to help them resume food production, restore food availability and reduce the need for high cost and unsustainable relief." As much fertile agricultural land was inundated with sea water, another FAO priority will be to analyze soil salinity and review damage to irrigation and capacity for draining agricultural lands to make them suitable again for farming.

Impact of Cyclone Nargis on Irrawaddy Delta Agriculture

CNN reported: “Farmer U Han Nyunt stands on some of the most fertile land in the world -- and fears that he will starve to death. Acres and acres of rice fields surround him. Once they were his source of livelihood. Now they lie submerged and useless, after a devastating cyclone tore through Myanmar. "We are all going to die here," Nyunt said. "But not because of the cyclone. We will die because we have no food." "No rice will grow here for a very long time," said Han Nyunt. "The soil is dead because of the flood water that the storm brought. "We are trying to dry the seeds in the sun," he said. "But it is hopeless. Once the seeds have started sprouting like this, we can't plant them anymore. All we can do is feed them to the animals."

By the time the storm hit, farmers had harvested their dry season crop. "But the problem," says Concepcion Calpe, a senior economist with the FAO, "is that a lot of it was still in the field and it was completely wiped out."Farmers tried to salvage some of the yield by drying it, but the country has entered its rainy season -- and downpours have dampened that prospect. Calpe's organization estimates that 200,000 tons of rice may have been damaged by the cyclone. She says the government has enough rice in its reserves to offset the loss. The challenge is to deliver it to hard-to-reach areas. "The problem is not of supply," she says. "It is now a problem of logistics because you have to reach people and provide some minimum supply of rice." [Source: CNN, May 20, 2008]

The bigger worry for aid groups is what lies ahead. With the rainy season here, farmers will need to plant in the next two months if they stand any hope of a second yield. Salt from the cyclone flooding has seeped into the soil, preventing planting in some areas altogether, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. There is also a lack of animals to help plow the crop. A boat trip down the delta's rivers revealed bloated carcasses of water buffaloes, the main farming animals in the area.

Yet there may be one silver lining in the cyclone's dark cloud: the same rainfall that prevents farmers from drying their harvest will also, with time, wash away the salinity from the soil. Calpe was optimistic the fields could recover in time for a healthy, albeit slightly smaller, rice yield. The USDA estimates Myanmar's rainy season rice yield at 10 million tons.

Early Efforts to Rebuild After Cyclone Nargis

For farmers an effort was made to replace lost draft animals and seed stocks. Some donors provided small tractors. One survivor in Pyinsalu told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “My parents were killed. But we’ve no choice but to continue farming, it’s the only thing we know.” Another said, “I lost my relatives in Nargis, but I’ve little chance to grieve. I had to focus on survival, That’s why I’m now working in a paddy field —I needed to make a new start. An official in Pyinsalu told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “We’re supplying two gallons of fuel per acre of land to farmers at the price the government pays. The farmers don’t have to pay for it now, we just tally how many gallons they use.”

According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) News Release: “FAO's proposed activities will help around 100 000 of the worst-affected farming and fishing households, particularly women and children, to rebuild their livelihoods through the provision of agricultural inputs such as rice and vegetable seed, fertilizer, fruit tree seedlings, farming tools, and technical know-how. To rehabilitate the damaged livestock sector, FAO plans to distribute draught cattle, goats, pigs and poultry to replace lost, sold or consumed livestock and supply veterinary medicines and vaccines to improve animal health and protect surviving livestock. FAO also plans to help the worst-affected fishing families resume fish production through the provision of fishing gear, nets, fish processing equipment, fish seed and fertilizers, and technical support. [Source: U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) News Release, May 9, 2008]

The Washington Post reported from near Bogalay: “The village's five remaining water buffaloes lolled about together neck-deep in a pool of mud. Even if ownership of the animals could be sorted out, they were too sick and weak to work the fields for more than a few hours a day, villagers said. New buffaloes would take too long to train. Local authorities in Bogalay offered to sell the people tractors under special terms, but buyers needed to prove they had owned more than 50 acres, with a photograph and a form signed by the village leader. Two farmers here were rich enough to qualify; the rest had worked plots of from five to 20 acres each. "We are victims. So how can we buy this?" said Chau, 32, a stone-faced farmer who said his sister, mother and nephew had died in the storm. Tents in the village and passing boats bore the logo of the Htoo trading company, which is owned by Tay Za, a businessman targeted by U.S. sanctions because of his closeness to the ruling junta.” [Source: Washington Post , July 6, 2008 >>]

“At least 30 big Burmese companies that locals refer to as "cronies" of the junta were assigned to the reconstruction and relief efforts in the delta's townships. This has raised concerns in Rangoon, the largest city, that the companies will eventually collect payback in the form of land concessions in the delta or elsewhere in the country. But Western diplomats and aid workers say that so far, the companies have often proved helpful. Some aid agencies, including Save the Children, have turned to businessmen such as Serge Pun, whose holdings include Yoma Bank, to obtain boats and warehouse space and to speed deliveries to the affected areas. Working with the company has "absolutely helped cut through the red tape," said Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children's Burma director. "I think all of us were frustrated with not being able to do more sooner." His agency's deal with the company came at a time when U.N. officials were still locked in negotiations with military authorities to allow in 10 helicopters. Now those aircraft are flying. And visa applications for foreign staffers can be turned around in 24 hours, while before they took 10 days or more. >>

Six Months After Cyclone Nargis

In November 2008. Reuters reported: “ One month after Cyclone Nargis swept away his home and four children, Myint Oo returned to a makeshift tarpaulin shelter in his obliterated village in the Irrawaddy delta to try to rebuild his life. Now, six months after the storm hit Myanmar, he is still there -- and still stuck in the same sweat-box hut cobbled together with bamboo poles and bits of cyclone debris. As with tens of thousands of others, there is little prospect of him being able to build a proper house in the next year. "We had no money to buy anything," Myint Oo told Reuters as he sat with his wife in the corner of their bamboo hut, a tiny two-room shelter built by aid agencies for returning villagers. "If not for the donors, we won't even have a place to sleep." [Source: Reuters, November 7, 2008 *-*]

“Another man in the village, 140 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Yangon, bemoans the bamboo matting on the floor of his hut, which has already worn thin, and the stifling heat created by the tarpaulin roof. "It leaks when it rains and it becomes unbearably hot when it doesn't," the villager, who did not wish to be named for fear of recrimination from Myanmar's military rulers, added. Normally, natural materials such as thatch from the palm trees and shrubs that used to grow across the delta provided cheap, rainproof, and relatively cool roofing. But the May 2 cyclone destroyed all the trees as well as all the homes. *-*

"The plants for thatch have only just started growing again so we will have to wait until next summer before we can start using them," one middle-aged woman in a village in Hlwa Zar, also deep in the delta, said. "For now, we'll just have to live as is," she said, with a stoicism that typifies the toughness of the 2.4 million people thought to have been left destitute by the cyclone. Aid agencies have gradually been given greater access to the delta -- the Red Cross says it is planning to help with 10,000 new homes in January -- and the junta has made much in its official media of the "model villages" that have been built for survivors. Despite this, one in three families are still living in makeshift accommodation, according to a report about to be released by U.N.-HABITAT Myanmar, the United Nations housing agency. "The majority of them expect to have no funds to upgrade their houses in the next six months," U.N.-HABITAT acting director Bruno Dercon said.” *-*

One Year After Cyclone Nargis

Reporting from the Bogalay area, U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, One year after Cyclone Nargis devastated southern Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, small bamboo huts with blue plastic sheet roofs provided by donors along the region's Bogalay River are still vulnerable to natural disasters. Pointing to tiny islands emerging on the river near the small fishing village of Kadone-Kani, about 32 nautical miles south of Bogalay town, a local man said, "Those small islands were totally inundated by storm surges during Nargis last year, and entire villages there were submerged by seawater," a local man in his 20s accompanying the group said. [Source: U Ko Ko, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 6, 2009 >*<]

“According to official statistics from U.N. Development Program's Yangon office, 90 percent of the families affected by the disaster eventually were reached by emergency shelter assistance, 200,000 damaged houses were rebuilt in what was termed "self-recovery," while 25,000 destroyed houses will have been rebuilt from scratch by June this year. "Challenges remain, and there's now urgent need for sustainable shelter for half a million vulnerable people," Bishow Parajuli, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, told reporters in a media briefing in Yangon last Thursday. >*<

“Nearly 200,000 households have received agricultural assistance over the past year, including more than 4,000 tons of paddy seeds, 5,700 tons of fertilizer and 90,000 packages of farm tools, official figures revealed. "We have requested $16.6 million in funding for the immediate period for seeds, fertilizer, draft animals and power tillers. This is urgently required if the next harvest is to be successful and is expected to directly benefit 20,000 farming families and 12,000 laboring households," said Shin Imai, a representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. >*<

Rebuilt Villages One Year After Cyclone Nargis

Reporting what she saw while on a government-organized tour, U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Kodone-Kani is about two kilometers from the Andaman Sea, and most of its villagers earn their living from fishing. The Htoo Foundation, a private local donor, has been constructing a cyclone shelter there. "Luckily, this village wasn't seriously damaged during Nargis. But it's very close to the sea. Therefore, the government asked us to build the cyclone shelter to protect from possible future storms," U Ye Min Oo, project director of the Htoo Foundation, explained at a construction site. The group has been building more than 18 cyclone shelters across the delta region, with most set to be completed by July, U Ye Min Oo said. [Source: U Ko Ko, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 6, 2009 >*<]

“Next along the way was Kyuntharyar, a new village 10 minutes' drive from Kodone-Kani, where 476 villagers are living in 124 newly built wooden houses. "Our village had been situated on one of the small islands nearby. Now the authorities moved us here for our safety. We can live in better houses here, but we have been facing difficulty earning a livelihood," a man in his 30s told the reporters. His village was among some that fell prey to disaster that authorities have relocated to safer locations. >*<

“Another place on the visit was Kyainchaungyi village, where 2,472 people — about 80 percent of its population — perished in Nargis. About 220 wooden houses donated by the Htoo Foundation already are occupied by villagers who lost family members, while another 200 houses are scheduled to be built by local donors in coming months. While villagers from Kyainchaungyi are living in newly built, better-quality homes, most victims of the Nargis disaster were still living under rudimentary shelters in poor conditions. "Now, we have houses, but the main problem is where the (rice) seeds are," U Than Tin, 46, who lost 14 family members, including his wife, during Nargis, said. "The (agricultural) yield of the paddy was much lower than normal due to the salty soil, so we can't collect seeds. How can we start planting without seeds in this monsoon (season)?" >*<

"Our soils were degraded due to saltwater, and it'll take at least another three years to produce a normal yield in the paddy fields," Thet Htoo, a farmer from Kyainchaungyi village, predicted. Extrapolating from his view, the entire agriculture sector in the Nargis-hit Irrawaddy Delta would need three years to fully recover. Another severely affected sector is the fishing industry. Most fishermen still need boats, nets and other tools to resurrect their normal livelihood. "There are more than 100 fishermen in our village, but only 15 fishing boats have been provided to us so far," said a fisherman from Kyainchaungyi whose wife and three children were swept away and killed by huge waves of the killer cyclone. "I'm still hoping to get a fishing boat from donors because I don't have money to buy it myself." >*<

“A U.N. report said 14,800 boats and 73,000 units of fishing gear already have been provided to those affected. The FAO has set up boat production centers to provide more watercraft for the fishery sector. The true number of boats lost in Cyclone Nargis may never be known, but the FAO estimates the figure at more than 100,000. At the moment, many fishermen and farm workers who were unable to resume their regular work are doing odd jobs in nearby areas. >*<

“One of the local private firms involved in volunteer work in cyclone-hit areas has begun building a three-story cyclone shelter in Kyainchaungyi. "We have designed it to have a capacity of 350 people to be able to stay there; it will serve as a school in normal time," an engineer at the construction site explained. During Nargis, 4,106 schools -- about 57 percent of the schools in the affected area -- were destroyed, and so far, 1,400 schools have been repaired. The United Nations aims to build an additional 600 schools within the next year. >*<

Top Myanmar Comic Given Prison Sentence of 59 Years over Cyclone Aid

In August 2008, Myanmar's most famous comedian was charged in a secret court, along with a sports writer and two activists, for delivering aid to survivors of deadly Cyclone Nargis, their lawyer said. AFP reported: The comedian, Zaganar, and sports writer Zaw Thet Htwe had been distributing aid to cyclone victims before their arrest, but authorities still have not revealed exactly why they were arrested. A 23-year-old activist, Tin Maung Aye, was charged with helping Zaganar, but the charges against the fourth activist, Thant Zain Aung, remained unclear, the lawyer said. [Source: AFP, August 8, 2008]

Jim Pollard wrote in The Nation: “Zarganar was a comedian, leader of the performing troupe Mya Ponnama Anyeint, which appeared regularly on television and was famous for ridiculing the government of General Ne Win. He was heavily involved in the relief work, organising hundreds of showbiz volunteers to deliver aid to rural areas. In interviews with foreign news media, including the BBC, he expressed his outrage at the junta's indifference to the people's suffering. The Special Branch Police swiftly descended, piling on charges including incitement and breaking media laws, and in November he was jailed for a staggering 59 years. There were two separate rulings, evidently aimed at silencing him forever. At least the first - the 59-year sentence - was so absurd that he was still able to joke about it. The second ruling, however, punished his family by transferring him to Myitkyina Jail in Kachin State, in the far north. Zarganar's term was later reduced to 35 years.” He was released in October 2011. [Source: Jim Pollard, The Nation, February 8, 2011]

Cyclone Nargis Helps Bring Democratic Reforms to Myanmar?

Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar credited with launching the astonishing political and economic reforms that dramatically changed and opened up the nation, may have been motivated to reform Myanmar by what he saw and experienced during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Serving as prime minister at the time of the disaster, he was regime’s mouthpiece during Nargis and was noted for his callousness towards the Irrawaddy Delta, the region of his birth. While 2.4 million people struggled for survival he made a number of statements that thing were okay and the government had everything under control even though that was far from the case.

Commenting on what might have motivated Thein Sein to make the reforms he did, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “One catalyst appears to have been Cyclone Nargis. The storm was Myanmar’s worst natural disaster, killing more than 130,000 people and transforming the fertile countryside of Mr. Thein Sein’s childhood into a landscape of flattened villages and rivers clogged with bloated bodies. At the time, Mr. Thein Sein was the leader of the military junta’s emergency response efforts. But as he crisscrossed the devastated Irrawaddy Delta in a helicopter, he saw how woefully unprepared his impoverished country was for the catastrophe. The cyclone became a “mental trigger,” said U Tin Maung Thann, the head of a research organization based in Yangon that provides policy advice to the president. “It made him realize the limitations of the old regime.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012 +]

“As the leader of the country’s preparedness committee, Mr. Thein Sein would have been partly to blame for the government’s failings. Critics were scathing about the decision to turn down foreign assistance in the distribution of food and other aid, a move that slowed the response as the world was captivated by images of haggard villagers desperate for help. But analysts pointed out that Mr. Thein Sein did at least make himself accessible to his people, unlike his fellow generals, who in the days immediately after the storm remained hunkered down in the capital, Naypyidaw, which was untouched by Nargis. +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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