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November 3, 2008
Q&A: History, rebels and crisis in eastern Congo

Michael J. Kavanagh reporting from The Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Taylor Krauss

Michael J. Kavanagh is a journalist with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He returned from The Democratic Republic of Congo last week and answers questions from Worldfocus viewers on the crisis in eastern Congo.

A lot of really interesting questions, I have to say — thank you. It makes me feel really hopeful that people are starting to understand DR Congo more and more.

I’m going to group questions into three themes: History of the conflict, rebel fighting in Congo and the humanitarian crisis.


Q. Is this a Hutu/Tutsi conflict spilling over from Rwanda?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Let me start by talking about group identity in eastern Congo, which is incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around.

This is not a Hutu/Tutsi conflict, per se. This is a political and economic conflict in which group identity is manipulated by opportunistic politicians and military leaders for their own political/military/economic ends.

There are at least a dozen tribal groups in eastern Congo, and even among those groups, there are local/regional differences that cause people of the same group to support different sides in the conflict (or none at all).

In Congo – like anywhere in the world, including Rwanda – identity is a fluid thing and at any one time a person might choose to ally himself/herself to any group that is part of his/her identity. This includes church, party, family, clan, tribe, village, profession and any other number of things that have a purchase on how we conceive of who we are.

For the last 15 years, Congolese Tutsis, the Tutsi-led government of Rwanda, and a group of other Congolese allied with these two groups – mostly Congolese Hutu but also supporters from other tribes – have had an enormous amount of power in eastern Congo. They own vast amounts of land, they own mines and cattle and hotels and are captains of industry. Some of this wealth came legally over decades, some of it came extra-legally during the wars that started in 1996 when Rwanda invaded Congo.

For many years, these men (they’re mostly men) were backed by the significant military might of Rwanda and their allied army in eastern Congo, the RCD (don’t worry about the name – it doesn’t exist anymore). But in spite of their enormous military and economic power, they make up a very small part of the Congolese population. So when the war ended and elections took place in 2006, Congolese Tutsi and their allies essentially lost all their electoral power.

There was legitimate fear that much of their economic power might be at risk, both because of the corruption of the Congolese government and lingering animosity towards Rwanda and its Congolese supporters in the east after years of war between the two countries. Seeing no political avenues to ensure their power, these men instead chose to exploit legitimate grievances – the continued presence of Rwandan Hutu génocidaires in Congo (FDLR), 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees in exile in Rwanda and anti-Tutsi sentiment – as a justification to taking up arms and force their way into politics to protect their interests.

This is a thumbnail sketch of why war continues in the Kivus.

Q. Who’s supplying weapons?

Rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Michael J. Kavanagh: The Congolese government has typically supplied FDLR (the Rwandan Hutus), though it’s no longer overt (the FDLR are considered a terrorist group by the U.S.). The government of Congo also works openly with many local militia groups.

Interestingly, General Laurent Nkunda also gets most of his weapons from the government of Congo – by stealing them.  There’s some evidence that some supplies come from Rwanda as well (or at least Rwandan sympathizers.)

Q. Most often in Africa, extractive resources are being fought over. Is that a factor here?

Michael J. Kavanagh: You can never reduce any conflict to one variable but you’re right that many conflicts in Africa (and elsewhere: e.g., Iraq) have a component that is related to fighting over an extractive industry or other natural resources. In this case, Congo is full of minerals and fertile land and economics plays a huge role in the perpetuation of this conflict, even if we’re not always talking about an extractive industry.

Q. Why would the Congolese government support Hutu militias?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The best way to answer this question is to begin by clarifying it: Why is the Congolese government supporting Rwandan Hutus? Because the FDLR are primarily Rwandan Hutus who came to Congo as refugees after the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The alliance is more political than tribal – the FDLR were important allies of Congo in the second Congolese war (1998-2003), which pitted Tutsi-led Rwanda against the Congolese government led by current President Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila.

For the time being, Congo’s government and the FDLR have similar interests: Certain economic ventures and diminishment of Rwanda’s power in the region. If their interests diverge, the alliance between Congo and the FDLR attenuates quite quickly.

But to expand, there are many Hutus in eastern Congo who are not Rwandan – they are, in fact, the largest single identity group in the conflict zone in North Kivu. Some have joined the FDLR or sympathize with them. Many, if not most, have/do not.

Congolese Hutu identity is complicated by several factors – on the one hand, they’ve been historically discriminated against by the Congolese state as foreigners who speak Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda), just like Congolese Tutsis. As a result, there have been important ties between Congolese Hutus and Tutsis and there are many Hutus who are fervent supporters of Nkunda.

On the other hand, many Congolese Hutu were killed by the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army in the Congo wars starting in 1996 in reprisal for the genocide. It’s a part of the Rwandan genocide story that has yet to fully be documented, but it’s part of the historical memory of many Congolese and Rwandan Hutus.

In part because of their alliance during those wars, many eastern Congolese feel affinity for Hutus and vice versa as their tribal brothers, and they say Tutsis are from a different tribal lineage.  This is genetically and historically very dubious, but many Congolese believe it.

My most interesting conversations in eastern Congo are often with Hutus explaining why they support whatever group they support, because it’s often a decision grounded in a very personal – not group – history.


UN vehicles patrol the streets of Rutshuru. Photo: Michael J. Kavanagh

Q. Who are the rebels? Are they primarily educated members of the middle class, like the mujahideen in Afghanistan? Or are they victims of economic devastation?

Michael J. Kavanagh: The CNDP rebels are a mix of dairy farmers/cattle herders, hardcore believers in combating Tutsi oppression, demobilized Rwandan professional soldiers, and forcibly recruited cadres from Congolese Hutu communities and from Rwanda’s working class. They primarily speak Kinyarwanda and the leaders are generally Tutsi (who fought with the Rwandan Patriotic Army in the 1990s).

Many of the leaders are relatively well educated – like RPA, CNDP has always stressed education, training, discipline.  Are they middle class?  It’s hard to say if there is such a thing as a middle class in Congo – even those who aren’t subsistence farmers aren’t particularly well off.  However, many of the CNDPs most fervent supporters are extremely well-off Tutsis who own a lot of land and cows and see the CNDP as their protectors.

Q. What is the involvement of Muslims in this conflict? Which of the protagonists are primarily Muslim?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Very little/none. Congolese are mostly Catholic and Christian. Nkunda himself is Christian. When I was last with him in late February he was wearing a pin that said “Rebels for Christ.”

Q. I’ve read that one of the big issues being contended is a big deal to give China mineral access in return for transportation systems. Is this cause related to those of groups like MEND?

Michael J. Kavanagh: Yes – Congo’s president Kabila has sold off huge mineral contracts to China in exchange for infrastructure construction.  This is one of the topics that Nkunda wants to discuss with the president directly, if he ever gets that chance (I’m not sure what he wants to say, however).  There’s an impressive Fast Company article, China Invades Africa, that talks about China’s influence in Congo if you’re interested.

As far as I know, there are no links between CNDP and MEND.  CNDP and MEND come from slightly different places politically and economically – some Tutsis already have a lot of economic power and they’re protecting it; MEND is trying to get Nigeria and the oil companies to redistribute economic power more equitably.

Q. Who benefits from the situation over there, and are the mobs being manipulated to anyone’s advantage?

Michael J.Kavanagh: A lot of people.  Some Congolese and FDLR rebel commanders and some Congolese army commanders have stakes in mines.  Anyone who trades on the black market in minerals benefits.  Businessmen who are exploiting the national park that CNDP controls benefit.  Rwanda benefits to some extent though less so than in the past – they have proxies in eastern Congo in the mines and many Rwandans keep cows in eastern Congo.

Finally, yes – the mobs are manipulated by the government against the UN, against the CNDP, and against Tutsis.  It’s a dangerous game, since MONUC is supposed to protect the population and genuinely tries to, and one of the main justifications for CNDP’s continued existence and Rwanda’s interest in the region is exactly this anti-Tutsi sentiment.


A medical center in Kashuga, which was ransacked a month ago. Photo: Michael Kavanagh

Q. What are the conditions of the hospitals/medical centers like? Are they being ransacked as well? I imagine with the current health condition, it would be important for medical help to reach into the villages/homes. Is any of that going on?

Michael J. Kavanagh: I’ve traveled throughout the region with doctors from Heal Africa and Doctors Without Borders. Health centers in North Kivu are horribly equipped – they’re located in remote areas that are hard to access and supply.  They often don’t have electricity or running water. When you hear about 5 million people dying in the Congolese wars, most of those deaths are a result of inadequate medical care.

Armed groups often ransack medical centers immediately – they need the supplies for their troops. There are a few decent hospitals in Goma, and a few others staffed by Doctors without Borders in North Kivu.  There’s also one in the heart of Nkunda’s territory run by a doctor and his wife, who is also a doctor – both are extremely influential in Nkunda’s movement.  Nkunda’s soldiers also get medical care in Rwanda.

Q. Is sufficient food still available to families in South Kivu? And, please estimate how much basic food costs have increased in South Kivu in recent months.

Michael J. Kavanagh: I’m less familiar with the situation in South Kivu – I haven’t been there for an extended trip since 2006.  The leaders of the peace process are much more optimistic about peace holding in South Kivu.  In terms of food availability and pricing: food prices have gone up in Congo as they have everywhere in the world, and that’s been very difficult for Congolese families. A lot of food for the region comes from North Kivu, and the fighting there has made prices rises more than normal.

I can’t give an estimate on costs — sorry!

Q. What can ordinary people here in the U.S. do to give support? I read recently that the UN was likely to send 17,000 additional peacekeepers. I also read a conflicting report which seemed to indicate that the UN was not decisive. Will you be going back there soon?

Michael J. Kavanagh: There are already 17,000 peacekeepers throughout Congo, so the UN mission in Congo is asking for more.

As for what you can do…keep reading – forward stories around to your friends. Write two lines to your congresspeople saying you care. Donate to organizations that do good work there – in North Kivu there are the Congolese organizations Heal Africa, SOPROP, Synergy des Femmes – these all deal with human rights and health. Internationally, International Rescue Committee and Doctors without Borders (MSF) do fantastic, brave work in Congo.

Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, click on every single Congo story you see and email it to friends. Editors notice how many hits different stories get, and that’s what will let me go back there –- if editors realize people actually care, they’ll shell out the money to let journalists like me cover this disaster with the depth it deserves.

Thanks all.

– Michael J. Kavanagh




Member of IFAPA

Christians and Muslims leaders; the only hope in the Great lakes region of Africa.

An estimated 107 million people live in the Great Lakes region (Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, DRC). The area described in a narrow sense above is one of the most densely populated areas of Africa. Because of past volcanic activity this area also contains some of Africa’s best farmlands. It’s a land of valuable minerals, such as diamonds, tin, gold, coltan. The region attracts many people for a variety of reasons. “The region of the Great Lakes of Africa is a crucial area for historical research” because “the first modern human populations Homo sapiens were discovered in the region” .

The great lakes region is a vulnerable area with some of the poorest of people in the world who are also battling with a myriad of tragedies.
The majority of that people in the Great Lakes region today consider themselves either Christians or Muslims. Both religions have a large number of adherents in the region. During the past half century, the Great Lakes region has been characterized by violence ( civil wars, inter-ethnic killings, discrimination, injustice, inequality, assassinations, ambush, rape of women, kidnapping, armed theft, attacks on refugee camps, burning passengers in cars, killing sick people in hospitals…).
The two important religions have to play their role in contributing to overcome violence even if their history is closely interwoven with violence.

The few hospitals, schools, churches and mosques are leaded religious. Religions have a big influence on the population. Because of that, the Christian and Muslim leaders have to help the populations to overcome violence and to improve their life.
In a nutshell, the people in this region do not live their lives to the fullest but could only be said to be existing without really knowing what the future portends owing to the fact that for some fifty years, in some parts, all economic activity has ground to a halt. The population is abandoned without medical care nor any social plan for the welfare. Sometimes, people have to walk three or four hundred kilometers to arrive in a health center or a hospital. Some areas have been rendered virtually lawless, For example: a man who violates a woman, he will never be punished for the simple reason that there are no courts of law, police anymore, there is not prison anymore, there is nothing more. Therefore people can make what they want.”
The region of the Great Lakes of Africa has gradually become the epicenter of violence due to a rapid upsurge in the population. They need firewood, land for cultivation, and pasture for their livestock.
The two important religions have to play their role in contributing to overcome violence even if their history is a history of blood and fire.

Both religions being basically religions of peace have to show maturity and preach peace in Churches and Mosques to their members by way of changing the economic and social- political situation in the Great Lakes region.

Members of the two religions are the majority in the region and they live together in the same houses, same schools and they share daily everything in life.

As the Great Lakes region is still immersed in violence, with humankind menaced by all sorts of dangers, a new example needs to be set starting from our church leaders right down to people at the local level. They have to be a model among the people in favoring dialogue and working together to bring peace. The populations are tired of being killed and of moving from one area to another under an oppressive sun and harmful rain. It is the responsibility of our religious leader to name strongly the causes of violence through their daily messages and through their communication systems ( media).

2. Causes of violence

2.1 Scarcity of land

It is impossible to talk about violence without mentioning the problem of land. The highest human population densities are found in the Great Lakes Region. More than 340 persons are packed into each square kilometer, and population is growing by almost 3% annually. Shortage of land is the primary cause of violence because more than 80 per cent of the population is rural and depend on agriculture for subsistence. We have also farmers who need pastoral land for their cows.

Land access have been one of the significant factors in a number of high intensity conflicts in the Great lakes Region. In Rwanda for instance, unequal access to land was one of the structural causes of poverty which was exploited by the organizers of genocide.

“Many people still consider land disputes to be at the heart of most conflicts between households, and a number of organizations estimated that at District level, at least 80 per cent of disputes reported to administrators are centred on land; in certain areas the figure is as high as 95 per cent”. Beside this scarcity of land, there are economic failure, social anxiety, political opposition to change, and inability for leaders to guide people on the way of development. These problems are the major causes of violence in the Great lakes region.

2.2 Political participation

One of the major primary causes of violence is the political system. For the past 50 years in the Great Lakes Region, certain populations have been excluded from the political system within their own countries. This fact has created dissatisfaction among the population. The Ecumenical Movement has monitored all these crises seeking to find ways of resolving them. For example in 1991 before the genocide in Rwanda on 10 January 1991, the Director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) addressed a letter to the President of Rwanda expressing alarm at the persistent reports of arrests, torture and killings of civilians as a result of the actions of Rwandan security forces, and calling for measures to be taken to correct “inhuman conditions” in Rwandan prisons and to guarantee respect for human rights as a means of restoration of peace and justice for all citizens of Rwanda .

In the same way, when violence erupted in Kenya after the presidential election on 27th December 2007, all church leaders condemned that. “There can be no political justification for the loss of homes and property, and insecurity that have resulted from this violence” said Dr. Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation and Moderator of the Interfaith Action for Peace in Africa.
The presidential elections in many African countries are always the source of violence and conflict. In these matters Church leaders have to show a good example and to provide a model for others to follow. In some churches there is conflict or division because leaders are not transparent in organizing elections. To be a model is a part of the mission of the churches.

“The envy of power, exclusion of the other, manipulation of the rural population has been the main origin of all those atrocities”. I agree with this affirmation because many people promoted the idea of exclusion, as far as certain groups are concerned, from the political and economic domain. Some people pursue exclusion ideologies in proclaiming that particular tribal or ethnic groups, others than their own, do not belong within their nation or region. The political marginalization of ethnic minorities have created enormous armed groups fighting against the government or other group ethnics in the same country.

Violence can be linked to public anger over politicians who take wrong decisions. When this affects people, they react with violence

Bad governance has generated many armed movements in the region right up to the present time. The un-namable Genocide happened in Rwanda in 1994 in which 1 million people were killed in 2 months.

Poverty has accentuated existential fears and exposed people in the Great lakes Region to vulnerability. “No nation can enjoy its citizen loyalty when basic human rights are not protected. With war and violence it is impossible to identify and to protect people’s social and economic rights.”

In the Great Lakes Region, we need good leadership who will work for the population’s interests. Churches can help to create a regional centre for the promotion of democracy, good governance, human rights and civil education. They could help our countries to have conscientious leaders who could be inspired by God to take proper humanitarian decisions when considering what to do.

2.3 Economic causes

The African Great Lakes region is an area blessed by an abundance of natural resources, but there are extreme shortages of power, a limited and poorly maintained infrastructure, widespread poverty, ineffective regulation of trade, and corruption in many areas of government and business all of which hamper efforts to make trade more equitable, sustainable, and profitable for the people of the Great Lakes region .

As we have seen violence has its root in poverty. Rogate Mshana, WCC’s economic and justice program, confirms that “wealth and poverty are intrinsically linked.” It is important to know that there is a direct link between poverty and wealth. The Great Lakes Region is an area where you find abundance of minerals in the ground. That particular wealth attracts entrepreneurs and speculators from many countries. It’s one of the reasons; many countries are involved every time in the various conflicts in that region.

Unfortunately, our people still live in extreme poverty. It is so sad to have various precious minerals from which the local people gain no profit. I think if we are able to reduce poverty that means violence too can be reduced. So violence is linked to poverty. Another paradox is that, the proliferation of violence weakens states and can lead to disintegration. Laws and regulations for efficient and effective distribution of environmental goods and services among citizens are inoperative. That is why there are conflicts and a cycle of violence in the Great lakes region. “The President Of Rwanda is conscientious that officials in government felt they were above the law and abused their offices to line their own pockets and he is asking why prevents leaders to make decisions and point a finger where someone has gone wrong? If you keep quiet, you are innocent”
Why Religious leaders can’t do a same thing in pointing causes of violence?
What we need to understand is that the economic dimensions of warfare have been central to decisions either to start a war or to end it. This is also argued in relation to contemporary conflicts. The cases of the civil wars in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Sierra Leone need to be considered within this framework. It is demonstrated that economic and political motivations have helped prolong the wars in these countries. In Sudan the war has served as a cover for inter-ethnic conflict to generate short-term economic benefits. In Sierra Leone, Government and rebel forces have been involved together in looting and illegal diamond mining. It’s the same in the Great lakes Region where 7 countries are involved in the conflict.

According to Professor Yav Katshung Joseph, the Executive Director of the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, scientific and Cultural Organisation) chair for Human Rights and Peace, “one of the most perplexing issues in the DRC conflict has been and remains that of the exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources. It has been established that the exploitation of those resources, including coltan, gold, copper and cobalt have contributed to and exacerbated the conflict in the DRC.

“We have seen that the risk of conflict diminishes as a country increases its level of economic development. In fact, the countries with higher levels of per capita income in the world, economy have a very low risk of internal armed conflict. This suggests that economic growth can be a route to reduce conflict and make societies more stable and peaceful.

To end the violence, the African countries in the Great Lakes Region have to work together through a regional integration initiative against illegal exploitation of natural resources and a mechanism of economic cooperation based on a common history, common interests, and a common culture . It is very important “to define strategies for political and economic integration of the region.”


To end conflicts and violence once and for all in the Great Lakes Region we have to look at both the political and economic issues at play, and to make sure that there is good governance and democracy and equal distribution of the resources.

In the multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-political and multi-economic context, religion must be a dynamic symbol of non violence and intercommunion.

Different religious must equip themselves to face the questions of violence by being politically and economically very well informed in the ways which would help it to become peacemakers and mediators in situations of conflict or violence and to renounce all forms of power as domination . Christians and Muslims have to defend justice. When human rights and justice are to the fore, violence decreases.

Facing the reality of violence, which in particular violates the dignity and value of human life in the Great Lakes Region, Christians and Muslims are required to witness to their opposition to it . The Church in the region is called to generate a movement from hostility to hospitality for the whole of society.

The way to that goal is long and winding, full of ambiguities and dangers. Christians and other faith based institutions must protest and resist violence.

The different religions have to teach from their theological perspectives, peace but to emphasize the equal chances and opportunities to attain basic vital needs, peaceful interaction as well as the necessity of human integration into community. There is no inherited right of excluding others from sharing the earths resources.


I’s very important to undestand and kow all those details about this coutry


Thank you for your coverage of this crisis in northeastern Congo where my family lives and ministers.


Congo have bad allies,and those countries are the causative agents of the war in the eastern Congo.When a person is too generous he may end up giving his milk to dog.This is the same case happening to Congolese because their generous by welcoming Rwandise and giving them a place to live and grow their cattle ( animal) in the East and North Kivu by the end the Rwandise started fighting back Congolese. Congolese aren’t fighting against each other, but the solution to this frightening war is that every countries around Congo should be held accountable by their wrong action.Here is my suggestion to end the war and other fighting conflict. First of all Rwanda’s government should prepare a place for Rwandise who are in Congo to go back and Burundi’s government should allow his people who are in the Congo to go back and having a place to live.Hutu have to go back to Burundi and Tutsi have to go back to Rwanda. When those people will go back to their original countries without being killed by their government that will the commencement of peace in Eastern and North Congo. Each country should be responsible for their people and the government should find solutions for the population to fit in a particular place, Hutu should fit in Burundi and Tutsi should fit in Rwanda. The conflict will be over when Rwandan and Buridese will have a place, freedom in their countries. The other problem which Congo is facing is Joseph Kabila is a Rwandise and Congo is lead mostly by Rwandise including the army. In Congo army we have almost 17 general Rwandise,and all real Congolese general have not function they are like dead lion.Kabila is killing everybody who stand against him there is no democracy in the Congo. The world sometime misunderstood this things let me shortly explain to you about Joseph kabila dependence. Laurent Desire Kablila the ex-president of Congo, when he was in the eastern Congo fighting Mobutu in the forest (jangle). He had a lot of wife as soldier do. He was the Commander in chief in is group. As war worsen fighting again Mobutu he had a Rwandise solder on his army named Kanamde Kabange who run away his country bcs of the Hutu and Tutsi conflict which started long time ago.That soldier kanambe had children and a wife, after the situation worsening.Laurent D.Kabila had sent him to war , later they found out that he died in the war. Laurent D. Kabila took the children and the wife which become his wife.Here is the history of Joseph kabila. Laurent D. kabila took the children and their mother as his wife and all the children considered him as a father because they were little. Joseph Kabila was obedient to Laurent D.kabila and Kabila the father love him very more than others because he was obedient to him. Finally when Laurent D.Kabila become the president, Joseph Kabila was given a group of soldier and fighting in the Congo eastern Congo. Many soldier new Joseph better than other general because he was their chief and was paying them their salary. The soldier trusted him more than other general. Joseph kabila was doing business Congo and Tanzania and selling Laurent D.Kabila minerals in Tanzania. He was sent to china before he became Major for some training. when he came back he was nominated general major Kabila bcs of his trust to the soldiers’ popularity. The person who own gun and soldier he is the one who is strong than other. After his adoptive father was assassinated, Joseph kabila was in other provinces and was called lead the country as a interim president till the election. Most Congolese are confuse about this story but today they are believing that Joseph Kabila is a Rwandise by his action of murder. Since 2001 he was nominated,he haven’t yet done anything till today, why ignorant Congolese should vote for him.


Thank you for your work. Let’s focus on one important aspect of the confict in eastern Congo: Kagame’s desire to appropriate the Eastern Congo. Congolese have to lobby the Obama administration to convince them that a balkanization of the DRC does not serve the interest of the american people. It is time for change: America has to leave behind the policy of guilt toward the 1994 Rwandan genocide and focus on bringing peace and stability in the DRC. The starting point is exercise heavy pressure on state-sponsored war in neighboring countries by Kagame, Museveni and the like. Equally important is to stop states and transnational mafia netwrks involved in illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC.


Thank you for your work. I read all of your blogs and post every news story on facebook. Obviously, I am Congolese, but I live and study in the West and I care deeply about how the affects my family there and my people.


Thank you


This a small article I find, I will try to send to you others.


[…] Republic of Congo and tries to explain the intricacies of the tribal and government warfare here. He suggests that much of the fighting is over control of the mineral resources in the Congo, since […]

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