KISMAYO, Somalia — Incredibly, this small port city, a study
in ruin in a country that is a parable of ruin, boasts two
airports. There is the new airport, as it's known, laughably
to all who touch down there, which lies 10 miles inland and
consists of a couple of mostly tarmacked runways and the
carcass of a terminal. Kismayo International Airport, in
blue block letters, is just barely visible above the
building's sun-bleached cornice. Stencil-painted on the wall
below that, and more legible, is the flag of the Islamist
insurgent movement that until recently controlled Kismayo,
Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, or al-Shabab -- a black
rectangle over white classical Somali script that reads
"There Is No God But God."
A half-hour drive away, hidden among the sand dunes just
outside Kismayo, is the long-dormant "old" airport. It
offers one dirt runway and, in the place of a terminal, a
half-century-old army personnel carrier, rusted to the color
of primeval toast, left over from the days when Kismayo was
part of Italian Somaliland. What it lacks in infrastructure
the old airport makes up for in exclusive coastal access.
The beach nearby was once popular with European sunbathers,
but after two decades of civil war, it's so deserted one
could walk along the Indian Ocean for days without
encountering another person.
Both airports now belong to the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF),
which swept into Kismayo in early October with three
mechanized battalions, backed up by soldiers from the Somali
National Army and a local militia called Ras Kamboni; they
are the poles in the southern axis of Sector 2, as the KDF
calls its new domain in Somalia, which spans the country's
Lower Juba and Gedo provinces. The southern axis is one of
the more cinematic war zones Africa has to offer at the
moment; aside from the airports, it includes an encampment
overlooking the ocean and the Kismayo port, which on most
days calls to mind a Turner painting, with carved-wood
barges tethered two deep to its dock.
Operation Linda Nchi is the first combat deployment ever
undertaken by the KDF; until now it has been confined to
supporting U.N. peacekeeping missions. The original aim of
Linda Nchi, which means "Protect the Nation" in Kiswahili,
was to keep the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab out of Kenya.
But the KDF has now been in Somalia for over a year. It has
2,500 troops here and plans to deploy 2,000 more by next
year. According to commanders, the new mission is to "mop
up" what is left of al-Shabab -- that is, to end the
Islamist insurgency for good.
The KDF soldiers have made a convincing show of going to
war. At headquarters, at the new airport, they've dug
hundreds of bunkers into the red earth and undergrowth and
have set up tarp-roofed tents and makeshift showers.
Artillery guns and tanks sit among them in a manner that
suggests imminent battle; but the troops here haven't seen
action in months. Lots of green plastic sandbags are
everywhere, as well as trucks and armored personnel carriers
with AU, for African Union, printed on their doors. A
surveillance drone sits in the hangar.
Nearby is the officers' lounge, a thatched hut outfitted
with thermoses of lemon tea and a television with
satellite-dish service. In early December, Col. Adan Hassan,
commander of the 3rd Battalion, who oversees the airport,
greeted me and three other reporters there. A tall,
stoop-shouldered man, Hassan wore well-pressed fatigues and
wire-rim glasses. By way of introduction, he told us that
the area around us was still alive with al-Shabab holdouts.
"They usually start firing in the evening. When they fire,
don't move; just look there," he said, pointing vaguely
toward the desert. He looked at the female reporters. "For
the ladies, you can sleep in the armored personnel carriers
if you want."
At the far end of the hut a bedsheet was draped on the wall.
A projector sat before it. A soldier at a laptop, his helmet
strapped on tightly, a semiautomatic rifle leaning against
his chair, brought up a PowerPoint presentation. A series of
slides outlined the obstacles facing Kenya in Somalia.
Hassan read them off. Commenting on a slide titled
"Demography," he pointed out that, in Somalia, "Loyalty
revolves around clan" and "Clan is unifying and divisive
factor." Under "Challenges in Local Areas," he listed
"nonexistent government structures" and "vastness of
I asked Hassan how many al-Shabab fighters Kenya had killed
or captured on its march to Kismayo. "I don't have the
number at my fingertips, but I assure you we degraded them,"
he said. "When we entered this town, it was deserted. Many
people had fled. But now, you wouldn't believe it. They are
welcoming us. It's because of the confidence we've given
them, the security we've given them."
All the officers in the hut, I noticed, including Hassan,
wore new white-and-green AU armbands with gold trim. They
were clearly fresh out of the box, meant to emphasize to us
that the Kenyan troops are part of the African Union Mission
in Somalia (AMISOM). I asked Hassan how Kenya's and AMISOM's
objectives coincide, or don't. They are one and the same, he
assured me. "We're not an occupational force," he said. "If
the Somali people are secure, we're secure."
Kenya's particular security interests kept creeping back
into his answers, however. When another reporter asked how a
spate of recent bombings in Kenya, believed to be al-Shabab-related,
influenced the operation, Hassan made clear that "what is
happening in Kenya has nothing to do with what we're doing
here." But then, he added, "We'll finish them here in
Somalia; then we'll look for them in Kenya." Asked about
Kismayo, he said it "was not an objective of the KDF. It was
an AMISOM objective."
This both is and isn't true. Since AMISOM decided to
assemble a multinational force to go after al-Shabab in
2010, taking Kismayo has been viewed as the endgame, at
least of the military phase of the mission. The city was al-Shabab's
base and the port its economic engine, providing an
estimated $35 million to $50 million a year to the group.
And as the interests of the United States and European
Union, Somalia's largest bilateral and multilateral donors,
respectively, have shifted in the last few years from
targeting high-value al Qaeda in East Africa figures to
degrading al-Shabab and shoring up Somalia, Kismayo began to
be viewed as a priority by them too. In the West, the
capture of the city is now seen not just as a win against
Islamist political extremism, but a symbolic victory in the
battle for what may be the world's most dysfunctional
country. The United Nations covers AMISOM's budget, and most
of that outlay is covered by Europe. Washington has put at
least $500 million into AMISOM and the Somali army since
2007. The Pentagon and CIA, which have hugely increased
operations in Somalia since the 9/11 attacks, provide
intelligence support to AMISOM, along with the British,
French, and Israelis. Despite all this help, Kenya's victory
in Kismayo was greeted with surprised joy. No one expected
the KDF to prevail so quickly.
But it is also the case that Kenya was never interested in
pitching into the bloody battle for the capital, Mogadishu,
which has killed over 500 AMISOM troops. Kenya has always
wanted to get in and out of Somalia as quickly as possible,
and it has known all along that taking Kismayo, just 180
miles from the Kenya-Somalia border and the nearest city,
with a massive show of force could be the way to do that.
Capturing Kismayo was "significant for Kenya because there
were serious questions about its willingness to fight," a
Western diplomat told me.
More of a mystery is why Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki chose
to launch Linda Nchi to begin with. The question is still a
matter of gossip among Kenya's political class over a year
after the operation began. Theories abound. There are the
strange politics of the African Union, which has few of the
dictates for cooperation that bind EU countries and at least
as much fractiousness. Some think AU members, particularly
Ethiopia, browbeat Kibaki into providing troops. Some think
he has been watching with growing anxiety the rise of Rwanda
and Uganda (the latter has contributed and lost the most
troops in Somalia), whose soldiers-turned-presidents have
turned their small countries into economic performers and
darlings of the West, while the poverty and corruption in
Kenya, once East Africa's leader, have worsened. Still
others think Kibaki was so humiliated by the election
violence that overtook Kenya in 2007 -- official estimates
are that 1,400 people were killed -- and by the
International Criminal Court indictments that followed, that
he jumped at the chance to edit his legacy with a patriotic
war against Islamists in the run-up to an election year.
(The Kenyan elections have since been postponed to 2013.)
Some believe it all. "Kenya's very vulnerable right now," a
U.N. employee who works on Somali issues told me. When I
asked in what way, this person said, "In every way."
Then there are the usual noises about murky monetary
interests. Kenyan businessmen want to wrap up the black
market that flows through Kismayo, it is said, or energy
companies want Kenya to control disputed coastal waters so
they can tap unproven hydrocarbon reserves offshore. One
certainty is that Kenya is trying to attract investment to a
new port on the island of Lamu; the more trade it can siphon
off from Kismayo, the better for Kenya.
But "Protect the Nation" can be taken at face value too. The
mess of security and humanitarian problems caused by Somalia
has become a national obsession in Kenya. A half-century
ago, the tribal domains that span the two countries were
ineptly split, resulting in a long-running border dispute.
Today, roughly 2.5 million Somalis live in Kenya, many in
dire poverty. Half a million of them inhabit camps around
the town of Dadaab, just across the border with Somalia, in
what may be the world's largest permanent refugee crisis.
Since al-Shabab came to power in southern Somalia in 2009,
it has taken advantage of a 400-mile-long porous border to
sow a campaign of terror in Kenya. According to a report by
the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, al-Shabab
recruits disaffected youth from refugee camps and Somali
slums in Nairobi, Mombasa, and other cities (along with
Muslim and Christian Kenyans) to carry out bombings and
shootings in Kenya. Churches, police stations, and city
buses have been targeted. The last month has seen a series
of grenade attacks in Nairobi's Somali-dominated Eastleigh
neighborhood, including one on the night of Dec. 7, at a
mosque, that killed five people and maimed a member of
Kenya had a real and pressing need to pursue al-Shabab, in
other words, and particularly to target Kismayo. And walking
around the KDF camp at the airport, talking to soldiers, I
found they all repeated the same mantra: We're defending our
home. Contrary to what Hassan had said, the attacks in Kenya
had everything to do with the mission, as they saw it. (The
similarities to the arguments one heard in the run-up to the
2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq -- "we'll fight them there so we
don't have to fight them here" -- were striking.)
Personal pride was involved too. I spoke with soldiers who'd
been in the KDF for 20 and 30 years. They had watched their
army progress from a barely trained, ill-provisioned
afterthought to one of the most professional fighting forces
on the continent. They wanted the world to know about it.
"We're ready to fight a real war now," one longtime enlisted
man told me.
Even with that advantage, though, President Kibaki could
hardly have arrived at the decision to invade Somalia more
awkwardly. Certain members of his government had encouraged
him to respond to al-Shabab by annexing part of Somalia's
southern borderland, in an effort to create a kind of Kenyan
protectorate that would be known as Jubaland. The United
States and the European Union, however, discouraged the
plan. Still, beginning in 2008, Kenya trained and equipped
the Ras Kamboni militia, which is believed to have several
hundred men around Kismayo. In a scenario that invited
visions of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the KDF drew up plans
to assemble an army made up of Ras Kamboni militiamen and
(taking a cue from its enemy, apparently) Somalis from
refugee camps to launch a proxy war against al-Shabab.
Kenya's Western allies refused to sign off on that scheme.
"We saw it as very risky and potentially illegal," one
Western diplomat told me.
Kenya had good reasons for staying out of Somalia, and one
very good reason in particular -- Ethiopia. In 2006,
Ethiopian troops invaded, with U.S. military support, after
years of cross-border incursions by Somali militias. They
fought their way impressively to Mogadishu, where they
joined up with Somali national troops in an attempt to
pacify the city. It was a disaster. Thousands of civilians
were killed; several hundred thousand were displaced.
Attacks on Ethiopian troops increased, as did attacks in
Ethiopia. Troop morale plummeted, and by 2009, al-Shabab had
the Ethiopians on their heels. Somalia was turning into
another graveyard for empires, it appeared to Kibaki. If
Ethiopia, with its soldiers hardened by years of civil war
and with its American helicopters, could find itself in such
a quagmire, he worried, what fate awaited Kenya?
Then something unexpected happened: Somalia began to turn
around. The populace began turning on al-Shabab. The African
Union stood up its army, and slowly but steadily it cleared
the Islamists from Mogadishu. The Ethiopians regained their
composure and took control in the fractious southwest border
region. Thanks to international maritime patrols, piracy off
the coast abated. And the United States and European Union
poured funds into the effort. For the first time in 20
years, people started talking about Somalia showing promise.
After decades of default cynicism toward Somalia, "There's
now a fresh look being taken," the U.S. special
representative for Somalia, James Swan, told me.
By the fall of 2011, the African Union had 12,000 troops in
Somalia, most in Mogadishu, and Kibaki faced a choice:
Either he could play it safe and disappoint his regional
partners and the growing chorus of Kenyans calling for a war
with al-Shabab, or he could get involved and risk a campaign
of reactionary attacks in Kenya, along with television news
scenes of Kenyan soldiers dying in the Somali desert -- all
of it in the run-up to an election. After a spate of al-Shabab-sponsored
kidnappings of European tourists and aid workers in Kenya,
the choice was all but made for him.
Kibaki announced the invasion in October 2011 -- two days
after it had started. Kenya's neighbors were taken aback;
few of them had been consulted, it seems. No one was as
surprised as the Transitional Federal Government in
Mogadishu, which publicly questioned Linda Nchi. Only after
a round of frenzied post-facto shuttle diplomacy with
Nairobi did it voice approval. Even the African Union had
its doubts. The KDF force wasn't formally admitted to AMISOM
until four months later, in February of this year.
Linda Nchi's opening went as badly as its planning. For
reasons that escape comprehension, the KDF moved in as the
fall rainy season began. Vehicles got bogged down in rain
and mud. When Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga traveled to
Israel to ask for help, al-Shabab had a public relations
field day. Not only was Kenya a stooge of the West; it was
now engaged in a war against Islam. Before a shot had been
fired, the Somali populace was turning on Kenya.
But, after a series of false starts, the Kenyan forces found
their rhythm. Thanks to a special agreement with AMISOM,
they were allowed to bring in bombers and warships. They
pounded al-Shabab positions across Lower Juba, Middle Juba,
and Gedo, and then moved north, taking town after town.
After a stiff 10-day fight at the village of Miido, the KDF
turned east and raced for the coast. In the early-morning
hours of Sept. 28, special-operations forces units landed on
the beach and parachuted into the interior. They were
followed later that day by two mechanized columns, including
Ras Kamboni and the Somali National Army, which converged on
Kismayo from the west and south, while an amphibious
detachment landed on the beach. They quickly overtook a
contingent of al-Shabab fighters holed up in caves in a lime
quarry on Kismayo's northern outskirts.
The assault on the city was well choreographed -- and, as it
turned out, overkill. A field commander told me, "The
opposition was not what we expected." When I asked why that
was, a faint smile overtook his lips, and he said, "Maybe
they knew they were up against a better force." The truth,
however, is more complicated. Al-Shabab had no intention of
* * *
Mogadishu is famous for its destroyed infrastructure. By
contrast, Kismayo, home to about 180,000 people, is striking
for its lack of infrastructure. Locals will tell you this is
because Kismayo, a medieval fishing settlement that evolved
into a spur of the Swahili-coast livestock trade during the
colonial era, has changed hands so often. In the 1890s, the
sultan of Muscat ceded Kismayo to Britain, which in turn
gave it to Italy. After Somalia won its independence in
1960, Kismayo's business elite turned its port into a
regional trade hub, but when the civil war began in 1991,
the city was flung between warlords. U.S. Marines occupied
it, with little effect. It was fought over for more than a
decade by local militias, the Transitional Federal
Government, the Ethiopians, Ras Kamboni, and al-Shabab's
predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, which shifted its
base from Mogadishu to Kismayo in 2006. Al-Shabab, the
extremist wing of the Islamic Courts Union, took full
control of the city in late 2009.
The day after arriving at the airport camp, we piled into an
armored personnel carrier in a military convoy. At the front
of the line of vehicles was a SUV containing a machine that
jams radio frequencies used to detonate improvised explosive
devices. The KDF soldiers wore body armor and helmets.
Riding heedlessly alongside us in a "technical" -- the
battlewagon of choice in Somalia, a stripped-down pickup
truck mounted with a Russian-made DShK anti-aircraft gun --
was their Ras Kamboni escort. The only thing the gunner had
on for protection was a pair of earphones.
We passed by an open-air dump where garbage smoldered, by
encampments of domed huts made from tree branches and cloth,
and then into Kismayo's dirt streets, which are lined with
one-story stucco buildings. Al-Shabab insignias were still
prominent on walls, a reminder of the suffering inflicted.
When al-Shabab came into southern Somalia, it helped
decimate what had been the country's breadbasket by taxing
and harassing farmers and pastoralists, and it then forced
out aid agencies that were trying to feed the population.
Kismayo's nameless main road, the only paved one, runs
through Liberty Square, where a toppled monumental column
erected after independence now lies on the ground in blocks.
Under al-Shabab, Liberty Square became a stage for public
floggings, dismemberments, and executions. When its police
wanted to bury people up to their necks and then stone them
to death, as they did to a young woman accused of adultery
in 2008, they used the softer ground of the nearby soccer
At the Kismayo port, freighters from India, Pakistan, and
Syria were docked, unloading shipments of fruit juice,
chewing gum, milk, and sugar. Al-Shabab derived most of its
revenue from taxing the goods that went in and out of it. No
great fans of al-Shabab, the merchants nonetheless allowed
it to rule Kismayo because it was good for business -- al-Shabab
simplified the bribery system and did away with competing
militia roadblocks set up to extort trade. Now the KDF
occupies the port's warehouses and inspects every ship.
A delegation of merchants and community leaders met us in
one of the warehouses. One by one, they came before us to
list their grievances. "We ask for things from the central
government, but they don't give us anything," one man
complained. "The world is doing nothing for us."
A port administrator I met, Abduli, said that though al-Shabab
was good for business in certain ways, it wasn't worth the
toll the group exacted on Kismayo. "In the port, in the
market, Shabab always, 'Give money, give money, give money.'
Shabab tax hundred dollars per shipment!" he said. "Shabab
kill everyone. Kill mothers, kill babies, kill everything."
When I asked whether he was affiliated with a particular
militia or other group, Abduli admitted he was a member of
Ras Kamboni. But, he said, "Now clan is over. Tribe, over."
"What comes next?" I asked.
"Is come tourism!" he said. "Is come tourism to Kismayo.
Kismayo beautiful. Every culture, black and white, come. I
want life, you know? I want the government. I want the
administration. Shabab attacking is problem only."
Al-Shabab is still attacking. The week before we arrived,
gunmen shot up the home of a local security official. Three
days later, grenades were thrown into a crowd. The victims
were brought to Kismayo General Hospital. They lay in beds
in the hospital's courtyard, under a tree, surrounded by
refuse. I spoke with a woman whose head and leg were
bandaged. A grenade hit her near the temple, she told me,
and then landed in the lap of a man sitting near her. It
killed him, but she somehow survived. "I was very lucky,"
she said. An even worse wound was caused by a bullet to her
leg, which didn't come from the attackers. After the
grenades were thrown, Ras Kamboni troops present at the
scene shot indiscriminately into the crowd and the air. Two
other casualties I met at the hospital were uninjured by the
explosions but were shot afterward by the militiamen.
After returning from the hospital, I walked out to the wire
at the new airport camp. A line of small bunkers with
machine gun nests faced an expanse of sand and shrubs. I
spoke to a pair of Kenyan soldiers who were playing checkers
with soda bottle caps. I asked what they thought of their
counterparts in Ras Kamboni and the Somali National Army.
Their feelings were mixed, they said. All the Somalis were
ill-equipped, badly trained, and badly paid (if paid at
all), but some were more disciplined than others and some
knew how to fight al-Shabab.
"In guerrilla warfare you don't need training," one of the
soldiers told me. "You just need to know how to shoot and
I asked whether he trusted the Somalis. "We have no choice,"
he said. It's well-known to the troops here that Ras
Kamboni's leader, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, was a high-ranking
administrator in al-Shabab before turning against them.
Indeed, Ras Kamboni was an Islamist insurgency before al-Shabab
was even created. Many families in the area have members in
al-Shabab and others in Ras Kamboni or the Somali army. The
Kenyans suspect they tip one another off about operations.
But there's little he can do about it, the Kenyan soldier
said. "Now we are brothers."
Some Ras Kamboni fighters have been tasked with guarding the
villages around Kismayo, where they live among the
population. Others man the airport terminal. They stand out
starkly from the KDF troops. They wear tattered solid-green
fatigues and have no body armor, helmets, or, often, boots
-- they've grown used to facing al-Shabab head-on in
sandals, with old single-shot rifles. In the terminal, whose
halls smell of urine and excrement, they sleep on blankets
on the floor beside walls decorated with graffiti left by
al-Shabab. One picture shows an al-Shabab technical shooting
at a helicopter. It looks like a child's rendering of a
scene from Black Hawk Down, and indeed it may be. Al-Shabab
reportedly recruited children from Kismayo to put on the
front line. (And the 1993 episode has become part of the
Ras Kamboni and the Somali national troops have been accused
of mistreating Somalis. So has the KDF. So far, Kenya has
refused to allow human rights investigators into the places
under its control; nonetheless, Human Rights Watch has
advised Somali refugees in Kenya who fled the fighting to
not return yet, because they may face abuse by the KDF.
This is precisely what President Kibaki wanted to avoid.
Perhaps for that reason, after taking Kismayo, Kenya has
cooled its heels. Hassan spends most of his time these days
sitting in a hut near his tent sipping tea and speaking on a
cell phone. The KDF soldiers appear to be mostly concerned
with keeping a neat camp. One day, I watched a group of them
sweep a runway -- for two hours. I asked how they liked life
during wartime. "I've been here for six months," one soldier
said. "Can you find me an American wife?"
It's generally assumed that success in Somalia, particularly
in the south, depends on the ability of the African Union
and the new Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, to help
the country's desperate population as quickly as possible.
They're already behind. Despite a budget that will approach
$800 million this year, AMISOM has only just begun to think
about planning for the peace -- in part because it thought
the fighting would drag on much longer. "They never expected
to win this fast. They thought they'd have time to figure
out the civilian component," says Alex Rondos, the EU
special representative to the Horn of Africa. "They're
victims of their own success."
When Linda Nchi began last year, an editorial in the Daily
Nation, Kenya's leading newspaper, pointed out that after
troops captured territory, "Kenya's biggest challenge is to
prosecute an effective counter-insurgency campaign to
degrade Al-Shabaab." Everyone I spoke with, from AMISOM
officials to diplomats, agreed with that analysis. They also
agreed that al-Shabab is probably not in retreat from
southern Somalia so much as it's in retrenchment. With
contributions from the Somali diaspora drying up thanks to
its growing unpopularity, al-Shabab knew, long before the
KDF reached Kismayo, that it didn't have the manpower or
money to face a conventional army. So its fighters have
blended into the population, where they are recruiting young
freelance assassins and waiting to see what AMISOM does
next. Al-Shabab fighters have studied the Taliban and Iraqi
insurgencies, and in some cases contributed to them. "Shabab
has been preparing for this onslaught for a long time.
They've been preparing to sink in, to make the leadership
mobile," an intelligence analyst involved in operations
against al-Shabab told me. "Time is not on our side."
Yet neither AMISOM nor the KDF appears to have a long-term
counterinsurgency strategy. One possible reason for this is
that senior officials in the new Somali administration and
AMISOM are involved in negotiations with al-Shabab to
disarm. Another, more obvious, reason is that Kenya has no
experience in counterinsurgency (its Anti-Terrorism Police
Unit investigates al-Shabab affiliates in Kenya). But
probably the most important reason is that Kenya doesn't
want to get embroiled in a guerrilla war like the one in
Mogadishu. "We're seeing a caution about going beyond areas
they can control," one diplomat said.
At the same time, Kenya is attempting to demonstrate, with a
pitiable lack of subtlety, its allegiance to Ras Kamboni and
other powerful elements in the south that are suspicious of
Mogadishu and President Mohamud's centralizing tendencies.
Last week, Mohamud and a Somali delegation were supposed to
have met with Kenyan officials in Nairobi. The day of their
flight, Kenya informed them they'd be denied entrance.
At the airport camp, Hassan said that his mission now is to
"mop up" al-Shabab holdouts. But when I asked whether he had
men collecting intelligence among the population, he said
that was being left to Ras Kamboni. I asked on two occasions
whether he was conducting regular patrols. The first time he
said no. The second time he said yes, but admitted that they
were mostly meant to secure the airport. Asked whether he
was conducting systematic house raids or attempting any
other standard counterinsurgency measures, Hassan offered:
"We've cordoned villages." I asked how many. "Two," he said.
When I asked why, in the two months since the KDF took
Kismayo, no local al-Shabab higher-ups had been captured,
even though they are all personally known to Sheikh Madobe
and others in the area, he said, "I don't know. That's a
question for the international community." He added, "I'm
only doing what I've been told to do."
James Verini is a Nairobi-based contributor to Foreign
contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and it does not represent the
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