Postcard — December 27, 2016, 8:00 am

Ghost Stories

Idi Amin’s torture chambers

Photograph by the author

The exterior of the chambers of Mengo Palace. Photograph by the author.

It took ten years before the stench disappeared. Human bones kept showing up. Hand prints, names and notes—written in blood or dirt—speckled the concrete walls: “Obote, you have killed me, but what about my children!” “I never forgot my husband was killed;” “IDI AMIN;” “Respect to Tanzania who saved Buganda;” “Cry Far Help Me The Dead.” It wasn’t always clear which ones had been written by visitors, and which by those who had perished inside.

The sliding steel gate, which trapped thousands of prisoners underground, was gone, and the ceiling had tumbled in chunks to the floor. The only way in was by boat; a dark line, covered in fuzzy mold, still marked where a deadly river, electrified by the flick of a switch, once ran. Not everyone died the first or even the second time they were shocked. Some chose to jump into the water.

These days the one-way trail of prisoners had been replaced by a steady flow of foreigners squeezing in a morbid history lesson between safaris and gorilla hikes. “You’re here for the torture chambers?” Nakamanya Lynett, the tour guide, asked rhetorically: mzungus didn’t come to Mengo Palace for its pastel-painted colonial mansion. With the king long gone, and no tours inside the royal home for years, it wasn’t included in the 10,000-shilling ($3) admission.

Nakamanya, who was dressed in a crisp white blouse, her hair in a bun, volunteered for university credit. She detailed the evils of Idi Amin: Uganda’s playboy dictator, who never hid his sadism and boasted that he kept heads of political enemies in his freezer—though he said human flesh was generally “too salty” for his taste.

The site was forgotten for decades before it was, as Nakamanya put it, “returned to the people.” Where others saw ghost stories, the royals sensed business opportunity: hadn’t Chernobyl’s nuclear ground zero, or Cambodia’s killing fields, attracted hordes of dark tourism enthusiasts? Hadn’t Amin been immortalized by Hollywood’s Academy-awarded The Last King of Scotland?

Red dust swirled around Nakamanya’s ballerina flats as she pointed out relics to some fifty visitors a day: a mutuba tree, source of Uganda’s once-abundant bark-cloth crafts; the burnt-out carcass of a Rolls-Royce; and a blue-white ceremonial cannon, resting among grazing goats.

The prison was hidden inside a lush hillside, overgrown by banana trees and papayas. Loose wires, without lamps, hung between exposed iron bars, so Nakamanya used a torch to illuminate the cells. Each had once held several hundred opponents of the regime: rich, poor, foreign, Ugandan, real and imagined, rounded up across the country by secret police. Every night, a truck came by to collect dead bodies from the cells and dump in a nearby private lake. “We estimate over 200,000 people were killed here,” said Nakamanya, matter-of-factly. “No one we know of ever escaped.”

The smell was that of an old cellar—and not unpleasant. There were no plaques or monuments.

A brick wall insulated the dungeon from the capital sprawling below—the noises of its 1.5 million inhabitants, prayer calls from the Uganda National Mosque (financed by Muammar Qaddafi), and the ring road’s traffic jams virtually inaudible.

“Whenever they sent someone, they would blindfold them and drive them around for three, four hours. So by the time they bring you here you don’t realize even at that point that . . . Most people didn’t know they were still in Kampala.” Nakamanya gesticulated to shrubs of large heart -shaped elephant’s ear. “This kind of vegetation made them think they were very far away.”

Idi Amin had often reminisced about the Battle of Mengo Hill in 1966, where he, an uneducated strongman of a northwestern warrior tribe turned chief of the presidential army, conquered Buganda—the vastest of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms, stretching from Lake Victoria to the Nile—destroying its palace and exiling the king to London, where he died under mysterious circumstances.

Moses Mukasa, a local man who would later work as a servant in Amin’s palace, never forgot it either. Then twenty-five, his first glimpse of the future tyrant was forever etched into memory: Amin was a heavyweight boxing champion and rugby player, almost six-and-a-half feet tall, who insisted throughout his career that he was “a soldier, not a politician.” During the battle, Mukasa hid next to a royal bodyguard, behind a screen of leaves, and watched Amin stride toward them with determination, pausing only a few feet away. Their hunting rifles futile against the presidential army, they watched, breathless, as Amin nonchalantly unzipped his signature khaki uniform, urinated, and marched off. Mukasa was spellbound.

Amin—who five years after the victory at Mengo Hill appointed himself His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea —often had that effect. Reporters devoured stories of the leader, who collected race cars but banned miniskirts and hippies; had five official wives taking turns as “first ladies;” and who reportedly fed several ministers to crocodiles. With defiant flamboyance, magnetic charisma, and bloodthirsty paranoia, Amin mesmerized, and terrified, Uganda and a world beyond.

The real horrors came after Amin launched a political coup against President Milton Obote in 1971, and announced, amid short-lived international enthusiasm and a slightly longer period of financial and military support, that he—a “pure son of Africa”—was the third ruler of a newly independent Uganda. Amin, who had escaped village life as a cook for the King’s African Rifles, a British colonial regiment, descended on the nation itself as a kind of military conquest; he renamed the government “Command Post;” placed military tribunals above the rule of law; and erected underground prisons across the country. His rule became so synonymous with killing that when the capital’s lights went dark, the outages were rumored to be the result of corpses discarded in its waterways blocking the hydropower plant.

Mengo’s strategically elevated outpost became Kampala’s army headquarters. Mukasa stayed in the servant quarters amid the barracks, even as the royal arms supply, initially an Israeli gift, was repurposed for crimes against humanity. “The rumor was, if you’re taken in there, the only way to escape that was by death,” he remembered.

The actions in Uganda “disgusted the entire civilized world,” said President Jimmy Carter during Amin’ s reign, without mentioning that the CIA had reportedly been showering Amin in aid and weapons throughout the 1970s, as Cold War blocs scrambled to control the Third World.

To the foreign press, Amin became a cartoon villain. A caricature of African dictatorship who laid claim to the throne of Scotland while tirelessly mocking Queen Elizabeth, requesting her knickers, and offering a cargo ship of bananas in gratitude for the “good days of colonial administration.” He facilitated a Palestinian terrorist hijacking and, inspired by a dream vision, abruptly deported the nation’s entire Asian-descended minority—a group numbering about 60,000, who were mostly absorbed by Britain—to “make the ordinary Ugandan master of his own destiny.”

When London finally severed diplomatic ties in 1976, Amin added “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” to his title, which he kept long after he went into exile in 1979.

These days, Mukasa’s grandchildren play in blossoming sweet-potato fields a stone’s throw from the torture chambers, and he worries more about bandits stealing his money than he does about restless spirits—and kept a gun, just in case. In his seventies now, in a time when Uganda’s economy has stagnated, Mukasa had become nostalgic, or perhaps amnesiac, recalling the modest development Amin had brought: a few roads, some jobs, and the nation’s first cancer radiotherapy machine. “He did so many good things and so many bad things,” said Mukasa. “Idi Amin is dead. We should treat him fairly.”

His wife, who said she still hears the cries and screams from inside, wasn’t so sure. She never walks past the palace at night.

Today, Uganda, the so-called “pearl of Africa,” was still being outperformed by the tourism industries of neighboring countries. It began to flirt with the idea of adding more destinations to the torture trail to attract more visitors. “Idi Amin is the most popular Ugandan ever, but no one is making use of him,” said Stephen Asiimwe, chief executive of the Uganda Tourism Board. But not all of Amin’s ghost stories were exploited. There would be no pilgrimages to the Nile Mansions, which had “interrogation” centers, where the dictator sometimes claimed he was born (he wasn’t), and where megalomania veered into performance art, with Amin once being carried in on a sedan chair by four foreign “volunteers” for an installation he called The White Man’s Burden.

The Nile’s Suite 211 was eerily anonymous, only a “Do Not Disturb” sign distinguishing it from dozens of identical doors. A uniformed lobby boy, too young to remember the atrocities committed inside, hurried past silently on crimson carpet. In the basement conference room, a national television channel frantically covered the fraudulent 2016 presidential elections. A $30 million renovation had turned national trauma into “an inspirational blend of five-star polish” and “pan-African panache”: Kampala’s stunning seventeen-acre flagship resort, inspired by the Nile, advertised palm-fringed pools, an explorer-themed Italian bistro, a Moorish spa, and much more, but never its bloodied past.

Serena Hotel was by far the best Ugandan hotel that “tuktukcanuck,” a TripAdvisor user from Toronto, Canada, had stayed in, with only one problem: the structure should have been torn down and rebuilt from scratch. “Too many ghosts,” the user headlined his review. “Needless to say, no amount of renovation can ever erase the horrors hidden in its history,” he wrote after having stayed in the “now lovely” Serena in February 2011, “in honor of those who perished there.”

An afterthought, a “Room Tip”: “Do not stay on the bottom 2 floors.”

Some blamed schizophrenia, possibly syphilis-induced, for Amin’s eclectic tyranny and fiercely nationalist Messiah complex. Others blamed the Western eye.

“Idi Amin represented what Africans were able to do,” explained professor Katono Nzarwa, head of Makerere University’s history department, who specialized in Anglo-American media representations of Amin. “And newspapers make rulers and kings.”

In all his mad, hypersexualized, cannibalistic glory, Amin was the monster the West—recently and reluctantly stripped of empires—had dreamed of, reinforcing centuries-old dark continent clichés, and suggesting, perhaps, that Africa was not ready for independence.

“In Western Europe you have more than 200–300 years of democratic experiments, right?” said Nzarwa. “And in Africa, we have fifty years. But you expect those with fifty years of experience to behave like we have 300 years. Is it really fair?” He was amazed: Even then, fractions of Europe admired, and longed for, its neo-Nazi past. And, as far as he knew, America had not closed its own torture chambers at Guantánamo Bay.

There had been attempts to resurrect the reputation of Amin, who fell from power like he came to it, toppled by his own predecessor Obote in 1979 after invading Tanzania and challenging the country’s president, Julius Nyerere, to a boxing match (with one hand tied to his back, to give Nyerere a “sporting chance”).

What role had “racism, colonialism, neocolonialism, classism, religion, tribalism, and greed” played in “creating” Idi Amin, wondered Jaffar Amin, one of more than forty children sired by the dictator (who insisted on being called “Big Daddy”), in his recent biography, Idi Amin: Hero or Villain? He’d laced it with fun facts: Did you know that Amin “tussle[d] with a crocodile in Somalia [while] on a King’s Rifles Army Tour of Duty”? That he “gave a Black American cleaning lady a 10,000 dollar tip to ease her suffering from racism” while in New York City? Or that some thought Amin was “set up” and “slandered” because he couldn’t be controlled by superpowers?

“He was more Stalin than Hitler in my opinion,” he added, in one of many Facebook posts calling for a more nuanced retrospective his of father’s legacy: “Someone who Transform the country for the better or for the worse, but Transform he did.”

These days, Uganda had the world’s youngest population and sky-high unemployment rates. At least three of Amin’s sons had repatriated, keeping their last names, and at least one worked for the government.

Nzarwa, the historian, was torn between Uganda’s future aspirations and a past slipping into oblivion. Business tended to suffer once skeletons, literal and figurative, tumbled out of closets. Even Westerners preferred visiting haunted houses, he hypothesized; not sleeping in them. “What would sell better: to preserve a room for posterity, to come and see where the torture used to take place?” he said. “Or to earn the extra dollars that come from that room? In your culture, bread and butter are taken for granted. You are looking at info for the sake of it. Here, we don’t.”

Nzarwa had never heard of Mengo’s torture chambers, which had never been marketed to locals, but was uncertain about the educational value of voyeurism. “The world has had their own Idi Amins,” said Nzarwa, shaking his head. “That’s the most unfortunate reality of humankind. That we never learn from our mistakes.”

At Mengo too, history had a tendency of repeating itself, and Nakamanya, the tour guide, was a “Museveni baby.” After overthrowing Tito Okello, who had overthrown Obote, who had overthrown Amin (and continued to use his torture chambers), Yoweri Museveni had governed Uganda since 1986, before Nakamanya was born. No stranger to torture and totalitarian tendencies himself, he had barred Amin from returning to Uganda from exile in Saudi Arabia, threatening that Amin would face charges for human rights violations.

To Nakamanya, the world’s fetishization of Amin had more to do with marketing—sometimes exaggerated by media—than the relative magnitude of his evils. “I think it’s a tourist attraction because the Amin story sold more in foreign countries. His cruel actions were not so unveiled to the people who are in Uganda. Most people who committed these crimes have not been prosecuted.”

She contrasted it with Rwanda, where perpetrators of mass killings had faced tribunals, and where she had visited the monuments commemorating the estimated 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. That was different: “it was more people killing people,” she stressed. “Here, it was the army, the government, killing the people.”

Amin became a chapter brushed over in Nakamanya’s own history classes. “They tell us he’s not a very good leader: that he used fascist suppression; that many people died during his rule. But that’s as far as it goes. To compile all he did during his rule could be a 500-page book, but we only learn about four, five pages.”

Amin passed away peacefully, at roughly seventy-eight, surrounded by world-class doctors and loved ones, having spent his last years by the Red Sea, sponsored by a Saudi allowance, in exchange for staying out of politics. His native village mourned a fallen hero, and international media rejoiced at his return to headlines. “The Butcher of Uganda” was buried in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2003, by his own account without regrets.

Even today, no one knows how many had been murdered—the International Court of Justice, which never tried Amin, estimated the toll at as many as 300,000; human rights organizations put it closer to half a million. Almost four decades after his departure, his spirits haunts the nation; presidential candidates made campaign pledges to repatriate his remains. But shouldn’t his thousands of victims still strewn on the bottom of Lake Victoria find justice first? countered those who still remembered.

In Ugandan folklore, Nakamanya explained, souls of the deceased were trapped where they had died. For now, families without graves to visit came to Mengo’s royal gardens for peace.

Everyone’s reaction was different: some broke down crying, others were silent, trying to take it all in. Some stayed an hour or two to feel the presence of loved ones. Most were very old—80 percent of Ugandans alive today were born after Amin’s era—and there were now only one or two survivors who came to visit each month.

This afternoon, there were no other visitors in sight. “Most people don’t want to come down here,” said Nakamanya apologetically. “It scares them.” She acted as a therapist of sorts. “If they come, we do talk to them.”

Nakamanya ended her tour in a dusty souvenir shop, finishing her shift at 5:30 p.m. sharp. She didn’t know what to think about the strange nightly commotion coming from the crypts—maybe superstition, maybe echoes?—but never stayed past sunset to find out.

Besides, she had a feeling Mengo’s ghost stories wouldn’t be Uganda’s last. “Today maybe it still goes on but in a more systematic and calculated way,” she shrugged. “Today you just disappear and no one knows.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation‘s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.


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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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