Military history


The Labyrinth

THE TIP WAS THAT Jill Carroll, an American reporter, was being held in a stable at a horse-racing track in western Baghdad. Carroll, a freelancer, had been kidnapped less than twenty-four hours before, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street. Her translator, Allan Enwiyah, an Iraqi Christian, had been shot dead.

The tip was plausible enough. The Amiriya racetrack was under the control of insurgents; most of Amiriya was. The Americans didn’t go inside the racetrack. The Americans didn’t go to a lot of places in Baghdad anymore. Baghdad was a city very near total anarchy, with thirty or forty Iraqis being kidnapped each day. Often the victims were children; often they were killed. Iraqi parents were keeping their kids indoors, even out of school. More and more Iraqis were spending their life savings to rescue their relatives from the armed gangs that controlled the city. It was a nightmarish world.

I’d only met Carroll once before, at a press conference. She seemed young and a bit wide-eyed, but, unlike a lot of freelancers who came through Iraq, she had made it work for her and stayed. I threw myself into trying to help her. I knew Baghdad as well as anyone, and I had Iraqi sources across the city. I hoped she would have done the same for me in similar circumstances.

“Sir, Jill is being held at the racetrack in Amiriya,” said Ahmad, my Iraqi fixer. “I am talking directly to one of the kidnappers. He is criminal. He is resistance. One hundred percent.”

“I am talking directly to the kidnappers”—that was Ahmad’s style: self-dramatizing and, in the end, as clear as a muddy river. Ahmad was a freelancer I hired when I couldn’t get information any other way. As Baghdad grew more dangerous, and Western reporters were moving around less and less, stories became harder to find. People became harder to reach. That is where Ahmad came in: he lived in the middle of the anarchy; he understood it and used it to his advantage. Ahmad could find people and get to places like no other Iraqi I knew.

Ahmad, a Shiite, lived in one of Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods. He was a character: he wore black leather jackets and carried two cell phones into which he whispered and shouted almost continuously. He had a pair of eyebrows that seemed perpetually arched, as if in wonder. His laugh was a madman’s cackle. “Sir!” Ahmad would say, “I have a story for you—a great story!” Almost always he did.

The thing that made me worry about Ahmad was what made him so necessary. He patrolled the Iraqi underworld, talking to marginal people—creeps, hustlers, gunmen—people whom most Americans, and most Iraqis, avoided. Ahmad introduced me to death squad leaders and insurgents. It was Ahmad who led me to the group of Iraqi insurgents who were fighting Al-Qaeda. No one else I knew could have managed that.

Usually I met these seedy people at Ahmad’s house, which was more often than not dark from lack of electricity. It was surreal, talking with a person who might kill me, in a room so full of shadows I could hardly see the face. Ahmad kept a flock of sheep on the roof of his home. “For eating, sir!” he said. There were about twenty-five of them in all, scurrying from one part of the roof to another, leaving their waste in trails behind them. Sometimes, as I sat in Ahmad’s darkened house talking to some marginal figure, I would hear the sounds of hooves trampling across the ceiling.

By the very nature of the people Ahmad was bringing to me, I sometimes got the troubling feeling that I was being lied to. It wasn’t that the folks he brought me were unreliable—their stories always checked out. It was Ahmad himself. It’s an axiom of journalism that the best sources are often people of marginal repute—not necessarily people you would invite to your home for dinner. How would an ordinary voter know about the bribes being paid to city commissioners? How would a person of upstanding character know about shady zoning deals? Ahmad seemed slightly shady, but it was his very shadiness that made him so valuable.

Some of my hesitation about Ahmad rose from his manifest joy at making money. His eyebrows never rose higher than when I counted hundred dollar bills into his hand. (Usually he charged $ 250 a day.) Part of my hesitation was due to Ahmad’s style: I rarely had any idea what he was doing until he was finished doing it. I’d tell him I wanted to talk to the leader of a police commando unit, and a week later he would call and say: “It is ready.” And some of my doubts came from the circular, nonlinear way that Ahmad spoke. Often when I asked Ahmad a question, the answer I got back seemed to be only tangentially related to my query. “Sir,” Ahmad said to me more than once, “it is very complicated.”

Waleed, my driver, who rarely offered a bad word about anyone, told me to stay away. “Not good man,” Waleed said to me. “Not honest man.” Other Iraqis I trusted told me the same.

So, when Ahmad called me about Carroll, all these misgivings weighed heavily. “Jill is at the racetrack.” Under the circumstances, I decided to take him seriously. If any Iraqi could find Jill Carroll, it was Ahmad. And if it turned out Ahmad didn’t know anything—that he was just bluffing me, or if other, sleazier Iraqis were bluffing him—I would only be out a few hundred bucks. The important thing was to do everything we could to try to get Carroll released.

Ahmad described in detail what he’d learned about Carroll’s whereabouts. He said the kidnapper he’d spoken to was apparently willing to betray his cohorts for a hefty reward. He relayed a description of Jill to me: a brunette with a streak of pink dye in her hair, which was correct, even though, at this point, Carroll’s kidnapping had not been publicly announced.

“Sir, she is there, 100 percent,” Ahmad said.

He told me he had met Jill once before, which could have accounted for his accurate description. But I asked myself: What did Ahmad have to gain by sending me or the American embassy on a wild goose chase? Money, to be sure. I told Ahmad I needed to tell the Americans at the embassy what he was telling me. I asked him if he wanted to come with me, to tell them in person. Ahmad looked at me in horror.

“The Green Zone?” he said, shaking his head. He might have said Devil’s Island. “No.”

By the winter of 2006, so many Westerners had been kidnapped in Iraq that the embassy had set up an entire team to solve the cases. It was headed by a man named Erik Rye. I drove across the Tigris and went into the Green Zone, where I waited for Erik to pick me up. Erik told me they didn’t have much on Jill. “The whole embassy is working on it,” he said. I told him what I knew, but told him I wasn’t sure. “Take it or leave it,” I said, and I went home.

And it was then that things began to get strange. A few hours later, after nightfall, my phone rang. It was Erik.

“I need you to come back over and meet someone,” Erik said. “There are some people who would be very interested in talking to you.”

I didn’t go out at night much anymore—the streets were too dangerous. But this time I made an exception. I got in our armored car and drove back across the Tigris to the Green Zone. I met Erik again at the entrance to the Rashid Hotel. I tried to get him to tell me what was up, but he wouldn’t say.

“You’ll see,” he said.

We stopped in the embassy parking lot, and I figured we were going inside. Instead, we climbed into a golf cart. It was a cold January night and I had not worn a jacket. We drove for several minutes, turning corners and hopping over median strips, going into areas of the Green Zone I had never seen before. I shivered the whole way. Finally we arrived at the gates of a walled compound. The Green Zone, of course, was a walled compound itself. Whatever it was I was going into amounted to a walled compound inside of a walled compound—an inner sanctum.

Erik spoke into a radio and a pair of heavy doors opened. He punched the electric motor on the golf cart and glided down a narrow street flanked by white trailers. At the end of the street stood a large man with a goatee and a vest; he looked like a Hell’s Angel. Next to him was a more normal-size guy, in a windbreaker and jeans. A lawyer on his day off. The guy in the windbreaker asked me to follow him into one of the trailers. Erik stayed behind. Inside was a single room with two plastic chairs. Just the two of us. The carpet was green, like at a miniature golf course. A small refrigerator stood against the wall.

“You want a Coke or something?” the man asked.

“You’ve probably figured out where you are,” he said. I said nothing. “You’re inside the CIA compound. I’m the deputy director for Iraq. You can call me Mike.”

Mike, if that was his name, looked exhausted, his face haggard and his eyes rimmed with red.

“We’ve been working day and night,” Mike said. “I haven’t slept since she was kidnapped. None of us have. When an American is kidnapped, we put all of our operations on hold—everything we’re doing. You cannot believe the effort we are putting in to find this woman.”

I told Mike everything Ahmad had told me. Mike agreed that the story made sense. The Amiriya racetrack, he said, was a well-known transit point for kidnappers, who often used the place to buy and sell their victims. Kidnapping auctions: that was something to think about. There was a road that led straight from the Amiriya racetrack to Garma, an insurgent-controlled town outside of Baghdad. Kidnapping victims were often taken there.

Mike knew a lot about Iraq, every tribe and subtribe. I didn’t have to explain how all the pieces fit together. I could tell by how jaded he looked that he’d been in Iraq a long time. Probably too long. He reminded me of myself. I looked at his haggard face and I wondered why he’d stayed so long, which was the same question my friends asked me.

When I tried to tell Mike how difficult it had been for me to follow Ahmad’s story, he interrupted.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Their minds work differently. Totally nonlinear. No straight lines. No beginning, no end.”

He started moving his finger in wide circles. “Believe me, I know,” he said.

As I talked, I noticed that Mike wasn’t writing anything down. I asked him if our conversation was being recorded.

“We don’t record anything,” he said.

I thought he was joking but he didn’t smile.

Then Mike asked for Ahmad’s phone number. I asked him if he wanted to call Ahmad; I could do that for him. No. Did he want to meet him? No. Mike told me that if he had Ahmad’s phone number, he could listen to his conversations and trace his calls and get a good idea whom Ahmad was talking to. I didn’t ask him, but I assumed that the CIA had the ability to geographically pinpoint a particular cell phone by its number.

“It could take us back to the kidnappers,” Mike said.

“I can’t do that,” I said.

“What you’ve told us is the best information we have,” Mike said. “It’s all we have.”

I told him I would be betraying Ahmad, who trusted me.

“Every minute counts,” Mike said. “The first twenty-four hours are the most important. If she is still in Baghdad—if she is still at the racetrack—she will not be there for long.

“After that,” Mike said. “we might as well forget her. Once a kidnap victim is taken out of Baghdad, chances are we will never find them. They’ll put her on a farm somewhere and we’ll never find her.

“Not long ago,” Mike said, “some of our guys were searching one of the farms in Anbar. Middle of nowhere. And they came across this guy who’d been kidnapped months before. They found him in a crawl space. It was as big as a closet.” He held his hand about three feet from the floor. “We had no idea he was there. No idea.”

“I need to think it over,” I told Mike. “Not tonight. Not now.”

Mike was bearing in, trying to lay a guilt trip on me. And yet at the same time, everything he said was true. Carroll was in the hands of a group of very bad people—they’d already murdered her translator. Her chances were not good. I wasn’t sure if my information was any good, but how could I sit on it?

“Imagine where she is right now, surrounded by those hairy guys,” Mike said, bearing in. “They smell. They’re breathing on her. Every minute.”

It didn’t take me long to decide. That night, I called my editors in New York and talked it over with them. The next day, I called Ahmad and told him his phone was being tapped. I didn’t give him details but I told him to be careful whom he spoke to. I realized that by telling Ahmad this I was probably defeating the entire purpose of the tap, but it was the only way I could do it and live with myself. After sundown I called Erik and told him I needed to come back over. And before long I was back in the trailer with the green carpet. I told Mike that before I would give him Ahmad’s telephone number, I needed him to promise me that he would not harm Ahmad in any way. I told Mike that if anything happened to Ahmad, I would write a story about the entire episode—about Mike and the compound and everything else. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

“We won’t touch him,” Mike said. “Whatever you may think, we take care of our sources. We have to, or we would never get any information. Our jobs are very similar that way.”

I told Mike the phone number—I had not even written it down, suspecting that if I had refused he would have taken it from me anyway. Mike listened and then stood up—he hadn’t written it down either. I didn’t feel good about any of it. I was betraying Ahmad. I was putting him at risk. But I felt that, given the assurances I had, and given the danger that Carroll was in, I didn’t have much choice. I was deep inside the labyrinth.

Ahmad called three days later. He spoke in an agitated voice. “Sir, there is big problem,” he said. I asked what was the matter and he told me he couldn’t talk on the phone. I drove to his home across town.

When I got there, Ahmad told me that one of the people he’d been talking to was Abu Marwa, the insurgent leader from Yusufiya whom I’d interviewed a few weeks before. Talking to Abu Marwa made sense: Ahmad might have had links to the Iraqi underworld, but Abu Marwa was the underworld itself. Abu Marwa, he said, had been helping him look for the kidnappers.

“He knows everyone in the area—he knows everything,” Ahmad said. “Naturally I call him. He can find out anything. He could find Jill in twenty-four hours.”

According to Ahmad, the night before—only three days after I handed over his phone number to Mike—a helicopter full of American commandos, dressed in black and wearing masks, had dropped into a hover above Abu Marwa’s house. The commandos slid down on ropes and kicked down his door.

“They hung him up from the ceiling!” Ahmad said, nearly hysterical. “They beat him. They hold up picture of Jill Carroll and they shout at him, ‘Do you know this woman? Do you know this woman?’”

Then the Americans took Abu Marwa away.

“Sir,” Ahmad said, “American helicopter come right after I talk on the phone with him.”

Ahmad’s brow wrinkled with worry. I didn’t doubt him for a second—not on something like this, where his own welfare was concerned.

I was furious. I called Erik the moment I left Ahmad’s house. It took me more than a day to get back to the trailer with the green carpet.

“You have really complicated my life,” I told Mike, thinking he might care about me if not about some random Iraqi. I was waiting for some acknowledgment of their screwup.

Mike didn’t blink.

“We promised not to touch your friend, and we didn’t,” he said. “Your friend is talking to some bad people. The guy we captured—he’s a very bad guy. We were having a lot of problems in that area and we think he was behind a lot of it.”

He gave me a hard look.

“He’s a bad guy,” Mike said. “A very bad guy.”

I asked how he expected to catch Jill Carroll’s kidnappers if he apprehended the one link that we had.

“Your friend was being lied to by his friend,” he said. Abu Marwa, he said, “was talking to a lot of people, but not with the kidnappers. He was just making up a lot of crap to your friend.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“In this country, everyone is lying to everyone else. You know that. They are all doing each other in.”

When I’d interviewed Abu Marwa, he had refused to talk about attacking American soldiers. Mike was obviously suggesting that Abu Marwa had killed a lot of Americans, or possibly Iraqi soldiers and police. In that case I couldn’t be all that angry that Abu Marwa was off the streets. But I was angry because Mike had interpreted our agreement the way a slick lawyer would—adhering to its letter while violating its spirit. And, of course, I was disgusted with myself for being a fool, for being dumb enough to trust the CIA. I felt dirty and compromised; I’d betrayed Ahmad to help free Carroll and gotten nothing but trouble in return.

“You’ve put me in a very difficult situation,” I said.

Mike shrugged.

“I’m here to kill terrorists,” he said.

As I walked out, I couldn’t help but feel cynical about the CIA in Iraq. It was hard to believe they were so bereft of intelligence that they had been forced to rely on a newspaper reporter to help them with the whereabouts of a kidnapped American. And it was even harder to believe that they were so ignorant of Iraq that, when given a single phone to tap, they’d discovered an Iraqi whom they wanted to take out of circulation. They had acted, of course, without concern for who or what they might upset in the process.

And the information I had given them on Carroll’s whereabouts? For all of Mike’s expressions of urgency, he told me that he had waited two full nights before he had sent a team into the racetrack.

“She wasn’t there,” Mike said.

ABOUT A WEEK LATER, Ahmad called to say that Abu Marwa’s father had accused him of conspiring to hand over his son to the Americans. The father had no evidence, but he knew that Ahmad had been working with American reporters like me. And he knew that Ahmad had been asking Abu Marwa to help him find Carroll. The American commandos had landed on his roof, the father said, only minutes after Ahmad and Abu Marwa had finished their last telephone call. Abu Marwa’s father was raising the issue of al-sulh al-ashaeri, the Arab tradition of paying money to compensate for a wrong. This was, suddenly, a grave matter. If Ahmad refused to pay, Abu Marwa’s family would be obliged, under the same tribal traditions, to kill him. That was called thar.

I found Ahmad very down. He had stopped joking altogether. He said he would have to make the compensation payment, called a fasal, to Abu Marwa’s family, even though he had had nothing to do with his capture.

I hadn’t told Ahmad everything I knew about what had transpired. I was afraid now, afraid of everything I didn’t know. I was afraid of Ahmad’s reaction when I told him I was the source of his problem. I was afraid he would tell Abu Marwa’s family what I had done. And where I lived. That family was, after all, part of the insurgency.

Things grew stranger still. Ahmad claimed that Abu Marwa’s family was demanding a $ 35,000 fasal. According to the tribal tradition, the payment would erase forever any claims Abu Marwa’s family held against Ahmad—even if, for instance, the Americans or the Iraqi government sentenced Abu Marwa to death. If Ahmad did not pay, Abu Marwa’s family might choose to kill him. Ahmad said he was preparing to sell his cars and his wife’s jewelry.

“I am not comfortable,” Ahmad told me. “My father is angry. We must settle the issue.”

Even so, for all of Ahmad’s worries, I had serious doubts about the $ 35,000 figure. Iraqis didn’t have that kind of money. I didn’t doubt that Abu Marwa’s family had invoked the tradition of al-sulh al-ashaeri, but I began to suspect that Ahmad was trying to profit from his problem. The Iraqis at The New York Times bureau shared my suspicions. With so much killing in Iraq, the tradition of al-sulh al-ashaeri was being invoked all the time. According to the Iraqis who worked for the Times, a typical fasal payment in Baghdad was about $ 3,000—and that was when the person was dead. Abu Marwa was alive.

It was possible, of course, that Ahmad was telling me the whole truth. Totally possible. After much deliberation, a colleague who also worked with him and I decided to pay Ahmad $ 6,000, twice the average fasal, and out of our own pockets. Ahmad accepted the $ 6,000 wholeheartedly, in hundred-dollar bills. He thanked us and called us to say that the families had gathered and resolved their differences.

“Everything is settled now,” Ahmad said, looking relieved. “I am feeling much better.”

The crisis seemed to pass. Over the next several days I continued to pay Ahmad to help me look for Carroll. The business with Abu Marwa never came up again. One day, though, Ahmad called excitedly, saying he had found a Sunni sheikh from Anbar Province, named Akbar, who he was certain could spring Carroll.

“He is in contact with the kidnappers,” he said.

The doubts I had about Ahmad began to grow again. But Carroll was still missing, and I thought it worth one more try to see what Akbar thought he had. So, after laborious negotiations, Ahmad and I met Sheikh Akbar in the lobby of the Babylon Hotel.

It was a surreal conversation. Akbar spoke no English. Ahmad did not translate. They spoke to each other, in subdued voices. They spoke to each other like old friends. They might as well have been talking about the price of tea, for all I knew. The meeting broke up without a conclusion, except that, according to Ahmad, Sheikh Akbar had agreed to give him a phone number for the kidnappers.

Later that night, Ahmad met Sheikh Akbar again, and Ahmad did indeed return with a phone number. But, as ever, with Ahmad, there was a curious but important twist. During their meeting, Ahmad said, Sheikh Akbar had called the kidnappers and spoken to them. And then, after he’d hung up, he had refused to give Ahmad the number, after all. And so Ahmad said he had waited for Sheikh Akbar to go to the bathroom, and then grabbed his cell phone, which he had left behind on the table, and taken the number he’d dialed directly from the phone.

My dealings with Ahmad, I concluded, had sunk to the level of farce. But I took the number, and, with Ahmad’s permission, I took it to another meeting with Mike.

“We ran that telephone number you gave us,” Mike told me later. “It’s not even real. It hasn’t been used in a year. Your buddy is just playing you.”

The Wall

I PULLED ON my running shoes and headed outside. I went through the heavy bulletproof door of the compound and down the long cement chute, a gauntlet of blast walls with a checkpoint at the far end. I ran south about fifty yards and swung around the coils of razor wire, jumped from the cement wall into the dirt. Three stray dogs who had befriended me recently were there to greet me. Their leader was Prancer, or so we called him, because of the way he sprang around, overjoyed at our presence but afraid to be touched; a second mutt was Nadim; and the third dog we hadn’t bothered to name. With the three dogs following, I ran across the junk-strewn field, pausing again to step carefully over another coil of razor wire. The dogs snaked through the wire on their own, noses down, and then wandered off. I ran a little more and then climbed up onto a patch of pavement that lay between Abu Nawas and the banks of the Tigris. A group of Iraqis who manned a guard post were sitting around; they looked over at me and said nothing. They’d been there for several months. They didn’t have uniforms, though I figured someone must have been paying them. On the wall of their little white shed they kept a small photo of a shouting Muqtada. I put my half-liter bottle of water down on the pavement and headed north.

Running wasn’t so easy anymore. My route had shrunk to a fraction of its old self: about three-quarters of a mile between two posts of armed Iraqis. My old path along the banks of the Tigris, the one I’d used since 2003, was finally rendered impassable by several new coils of razor wire. Still, a second stretch of pavement ran closer to Abu Nawas—I could use that. If I ran between the two checkpoints six or seven times, I could make five miles.

The guys in the first checkpoint, the one with the photo of Muqtada, were friendly but not overly so. In the summer we told the Iraqis who maintained the bureau to carry water out to them. They didn’t say much but I knew they drank it. In the winter, the guards hacked branches from the few trees that remained in the park and burned them for warmth. Once, when I wasn’t around, the fire burned out of control, scorching what was left of the dead grass the Americans had planted the previous year. Everything was like that in Iraq: anything anyone ever tried burned to black. At night, during the World Cup, the guards had dragged a television out there, which they ran off of our electricity. That made me feel good, the idea that they might need us, even in a small way. A female colleague ran with me occasionally, and the guards used to ask about her when she was gone.

Things happened I didn’t fully understand. Like the day the guards in the white shed beat up one of the guards who worked for us. Really pummeled him; he was crying and ran home. I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone on that, why they’d done it. But the incident struck me as odd, since our guards far outnumbered the guards in the white shed. Sometimes when I’d get back from a lap, my water bottle would be missing. I’d put it on the pavement and run off and come back and it would be gone. I’d look over at the guards and their faces would be blank.

The northern checkpoint was more official—these guys had uniforms—but it was scarier, especially after dark. The wall, about five feet high, ran from the Tigris all the way to Abu Nawas; there was no getting past it. As I approached on foot, I’d often see their heads peeking over the top of the wall. They had a searchlight, which sometimes they turned on when they saw me coming. But usually they left it off, and that was worse. I didn’t want to surprise them in the dark. I didn’t want them to mistake me for an insurgent trying to overrun their post. I’d run right up to the wall and touch it, even in the dark—I needed the distance for my run—and often I could run all the way up to the wall and not one of them would say a word. Often I wouldn’t say anything either. I’d run all the way to the wall, and at the last second I would catch sight of one of them, his face level with mine, staring at me in the dark. It would scare the hell out of me. Probably them, too.

Often, though, it was the dogs that saved me. The wild dogs who lived in the reeds down by the river had multiplied. Without anyone culling their ranks, the colony had grown so large that some of the dogs had migrated into the park itself. There were dozens of them now, living in the folds of dirt, using the last of the eucalyptus trees to shade them from the sun. And at night, as I ran past them, I’d set them into a frenzy of howling and barking. The dogs would come up into the road, dozens of them, maybe a hundred. I hated the things—they were so aggressive—but their yipping and yapping often alerted the guards to my approach, and they’d switch on their searchlight and see me coming.

Running at night: it was madness. I was courting death, or at least a kidnapping. The capital was a free-for-all; it was a state of nature. There was no law anymore, no courts, nothing—there was nothing at all. They kidnapped children now, they killed them and dumped them in the street. The kidnapping gangs bought and sold people; it was like its own terrible ecosystem. One of the kidnapping gangs could have driven up in a car and beat me and gagged me and I could have screamed like a crazy person, but I doubt anyone would have done anything. Not even the guards. They weren’t bad people, the guards, but who in Baghdad was going to step in the middle of a kidnapping? The kidnappers had more power than anyone.

I had been in Iraq too long. Going on four years. I’d lived through everything, shootings and bomb blasts and death, and I’d never gotten so much as a scratch. I guess I was numb. I guess I felt invincible. The danger seemed notional to me now, not entirely real, something I wrote about, something that killed other people. The mechanism I used to calculate risk, the one I had relied on since 2003, had been fueled by an acute sense of self-preservation, of sensitivity to danger. And now I couldn’t force myself to care all that much; I figured I’d always get away. I always had before.

The one thing left I wasn’t numb to was the running itself. Running out there on the Tigris, with the dogs, in the dark, in the dying city, was one of the few things that I could still feel. In Baghdad, the most hopeless of cities, for a few blissful minutes, my heart would race.

I approached the second checkpoint. The birds rustled in the eucalyptus trees. The dogs began to yip and howl, but tonight they kept their places. The sky was clear, the streets blissfully still. An orange moon was rising above the city. Just above the wall was the silhouette of a soldier’s head. He was looking, too. “Good, good!” he said from behind the wall.

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