Monday 28 November

I woke up in a rage about the elections. A violent, sputtering rage, bordering on revulsion. I felt like a dog that had been fed a teething toy to stop his howling about a wide-open wound.

I couldn’t get the sign out of my mind, raised by an old man in Tahrir: ‘If Tantawi can’t accept my sowt in a vast square, will he accept it in a ballot box?’ The word for ‘voice’ and ‘vote’ is the same. And here we were, on the first morning of an election that may well be rigged, for a parliament that is likely to be powerless, under a regime that is ushering us forward into this farce to distract from the fact that it had spent the past week killing, maiming and brutalizing those who had spoken out against it. All while the blood spilled was still warm.

I raged, and raged, and remembered last Monday.


Monday 21 November

We walked into an alleyway of shops selling industrial safety equipment. We chose one at random; the man knew why we were there. He showed us the gas masks, black plastic with side filters and an orange snout. We asked to see the safety goggles too. My friend Chitra wondered idly whether helmets might not also be a good idea. Mahmoud, a writer, haggled over a big box full of gas masks and goggles, telling the man with a grin that it was his patriotic duty to give us a good price.

We headed towards Tahrir. We’d been this way hundreds of times before, but this time was different. Nervousness crackled between us. A big pack of emergency medical supplies rounded my back like a hump. The sky was overcast, the streets leading up to the square virtually empty. It felt like those eighteen days back in January and February. I didn’t know what to call them now: ‘revolution’ faltered and fell off my lips.

I was last here three days earlier, on Friday. We’d come out in force to protest military rule. In the nine months since Mubarak was overthrown, thousands of people – including artist and activist friends – have been thrown in jail, subjected to torture and sexual assault, sentenced en masse before military tribunals. Maspero, the name of the monolithic television building on the Nile, now collocates with massacre, and the indelible image of tanks mowing down unarmed protesters. State media has been used to whip the general public up into a frenzy against the ongoing strikes and protests – against the very revolution – which was blamed for the rise in crime and a crumbling economy. Just like Mubarak, the military junta was blowing magic sleep-dust into people’s ears, that soporific promise of stability: iss-tiq-raar, iss-tiq-raar, iss-tiq-raar.

We went out on Friday, and then we went home. A small group of people – most of whom had been injured in the revolution’s early days, and had yet to see any change – decided to stay in Tahrir. On Saturday morning Central Security forces, Egypt’s riot police, violently stormed the sit-in.

 

Saturday 19 November

I watched the events on Saturday from afar. The square was under attack, and hundreds more people streamed in to defend it. I’d been in most of the protests since 25January. I’d marched and chanted, translated testimonials and delivered supplies, posted news and tried to get the word out as best I could. But I had always managed, through a mixture of fear and luck, to veer out of the way of violence. I was not in that core group of activists who had spoken out long before speaking out became widespread, who for years had led small, seemingly futile demonstrations, and who were often the first to head out whenever there was trouble, who put themselves in harm’s way and called on others to do the same. And I was certainly not the young man who had stood in front of an armoured vehicle to stop it or the hundreds of others who stood on the front lines, facing the bullets with bare chests. I admired the courage of the former camp, envied their unwavering belief. As for the latter, I could not relate to them at all. What did it take to step out onto that brink of self-sacrifice? The word heroism doesn’t mean much to me. What does is human life: our small, rugged, dirt-beneath-nails existence. I don’t believe in dying for a cause, I said to myself, I believe in living for one.

Malek was in that band of activists. I’d met him briefly two summers earlier, over a dinner table packed with friends and glasses. On Friday I saw him with some of my friends at the downtown restaurant everyone heads to for a break during protests. He was wearing yellow, leaning against the table, looking lion-like as always. I talked books with a mutual friend. On Saturday Malek lost his right eye to a birdshot pellet.

 

Sunday 20 November

By Sunday, I felt depleted. I wanted to hear nothing more of Tahrir, to blank it out for today, this all-consuming thing that had taken over our lives for the past ten months. Petulantly, I wished I was elsewhere, that the choices I had to make today were limited to what I would eat, where I would go with friends, what word to put before which. But Tahrir is unavoidable. My sister called me from Dubai, paused for a beat after my ‘hello’ to listen to my quiet surroundings and said, ‘Obviously you’re not there.’

I called Hala, who was. She said she was sitting in front of the Mugamma building, where people came to rest from the fighting. Her voice sounded deflated. I was glad to hear there were still safe spots in the square. This is what they don’t tell you on the news – about the pockets of normalcy that always exist, persist – and I, having been a watcher for over a day now, had forgotten.

At 3 p.m., I grudgingly decided to go. Fear and inertia would keep their grip on me for two more hours, inhaling a constant stream of news on Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly I was up, and I could not remember how I got there. In the words of Derrida: the moment of decision is madness. I began to pull on clothes: thick jeans, running shoes, warm hoodie, scarf. I wrote down a list of the medical supplies needed and was debating whether to take vinegar or coke, our trusty anti-tear-gas aides, when I got a call from a friend I had been to many a demonstration with.

‘Where are you?’ she demanded.

‘Home, heading over now . . . ’

‘Stay where you are!’ she said, her voice rising. ‘The army has stormed the square and is shooting live fire!’

‘Are you . . . sure?’ I heard myself mumbling, my heart gone cold.

‘Stay where you are!’ she repeated, as though I hadn’t heard. She was shouting now. ‘THE ARMY HAS STORMED THE SQUARE AND IS SHOOTING LIVE FIRE!’

I called Hala. It rang twice. She answered, her voice mangled.

‘I’m choking on my own tears . . . we’re safe . . . we ran, found a place . . . choking . . . can’t speak . . .’

Tahrir is empty. They streak across it, setting it ablaze: the tents, a lone motorcycle, the new banner proclaiming The People Want a Civilian Ruling Council. The square is on fire, many small fires. Slowly, people regroup in the downtown alleyways, amidst vicious street fighting, and make their way back to their midan. More and more join them as the night wears on. If they had let a few dozen people stay in the central garden of the square, none of this would have happened. Now Tahrir was filled with thousands, who used the iron railings to bang out a ragged beat to their chants against the military and police, amidst the incessant wail of ambulance sirens.

Reports on Twitter were of more than thirty corpses in Zeinhom morgue, many of them dead from live bullets to the head and heart. The families were being pressured to sign releases claiming other causes of death, in exchange for their children’s bodies.

I called Hani at night. I knew he had been with Hala earlier, and I assumed she meant him too when she said ‘we’re safe’. His phone was switched off. My roommate came home and told me that two of our friends were now in Mohammad Mahmoud, where most of the fighting was taking place, throwing rocks. I had spent the eighteen days with them both, and could not imagine two people less likely to be engaged in what now amounted to trench warfare. One was all bark and no bite, who ran at the sight of his own shadow; the other was like a small Buddha: calm, implacable. I texted Hani, trying to imagine where in the square he would’ve been. A man with love and integrity, a patriot, an engineer, an eternal optimist. I could not imagine him milling about the inside of the square while others were being injured and killed, but I had never seen him display the sort of single-minded ferocity it must take to be on Mohammad Mahmoud.

I tried him again. It rang, finally. He picked up. His voice was soft, calm, happy. Relief. ‘They broke me,’ he said in Egyptian. ‘Emotionally, psychologically . . . ?’ I half-joked, dreading the answer. ‘The military police . . . they split my head open . . . and my arm went up to protect it . . .’ I heard ‘a lot of blood’, I heard ‘ambulance’ and ‘stitches’ and ‘bruises’ and even as he reassured me that he was going to be fine, that miraculously there was nothing broken and no internal bleeding, I felt unutterably bewildered. I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I got it then. This good man. This good man who had stood up for what he believed was right, in the streets of his own city. Viciously beaten, narrowly escaping a worse fate. A small child in me, sad and disbelieving, widened its eyes, asking a question that had never been quite so specific before. Why would anyone want to hurt Hani?

 

Monday 21 November

We walked into Tahrir carrying gas masks and medical supplies. The atmosphere was tense, people’s faces grim. The field hospital had to be evacuated last night from its spot just off Mohammad Mahmoud, after it was directly hit with volley after volley of tear gas. Two passages had now been cleared through the crowds, demarcated by waist-high lengths of rope and guarded by young men, along which motorbikes zipped, ferrying the injured from the front lines to two tents inside the square that now acted as makeshift hospitals.

We met Hani. His head and right arm were bandaged, and his back clearly smarted whenever anyone would touch it, but he was in good spirits. ‘It’s a lot more crowded than yesterday. They’re just provoking more and more people to come out.’

I eyed the direction of the fighting nervously. Every so often people would break into a run, charging towards us. Hani stayed put, calling with wide arms for people not to run, not to panic. He said it was just the kids at the end of Mohammad Mahmoud running from a new tear gas bomb. He was already an old hand at this new square.

Sunset was approaching: dawn and dusk were their favourite times to strike.

‘If they do come in again, which way do we run?’

‘That way.’ He nodded towards Kasr el-Nil Bridge, not missing a beat.

He added that there was no way they would storm the square again today, not with this many people, not with yesterday’s big media scandal, from which they were still trying to recover. I wasn’t so sure. I wouldn’t put anything past them. They did everything with a crude impunity that was either lunacy or utter stupidity. Or perhaps it was a twisted, Machiavellian genius: their actions were so bumblingly blatant that the general public did not believe the worst could possibly be true of their beloved armed forces.

We went to eat at the usual place, and Hani ordered his usual, and as usual I teased him about his predictability, all of which was reassuring. A waiter we knew, with a straight solemn back and a skinny wolfishness, had small dark holes in his face. Pellets; we’d learned to recognize them by now. I couldn’t imagine him out of his straightlaced black-and-white uniform. I tried to imagine him throwing rocks.

Hani told us how it had happened. He was in Mohammad Mahmoud, close to the square. The vehicle shooting tear gas suddenly surged forward towards them, firing bombs in quick succession. They turned to run, and found a rush of people running towards them from the opposite direction. In a perfectly coordinated move, military police had charged the square from the opposite side. They were caught in this two-armed pincer, a heap of bodies, sticks raining blows, a thousand scenarios rushing through his head as the blood gushed: is this it? The moment I get arrested, get killed? He heard one of the officers say, ‘This is so you won’t come back to Tahrir, you –’ and suddenly something broke and they ran for their lives. After being rushed to the hospital and his wounds taken care of, he was determined to come straight back to the square – if only in defiance of that officer’s words, his blows – but a friend held him back. He returned in the morning.

We went back to the square, meeting Hala along the way. She told us of the stampede when the army attacked, how she and a couple of other girls managed to burrow into the side streets, begging several people in the neighbourhood to let them in as soldiers crawled through the streets searching for protestors. Finally a couple of gas station attendants called them over and unlocked a tiny storeroom for them to hide in. After forty-five minutes in there they started to gasp from a fresh round of tear gas and had to come out, finally finding their way through the back alleys to a friend’s house and temporary safety.

Abdalla joined us, this ambling beanstalk of a boy-man, from his station deep into Mohammad Mahmoud, on the very forefront of the fighting. He still had his toothy grin. He also had pellet holes in his face from Saturday and a bandage on the back of his head where he caught a rock on Sunday.

‘Friendly fire,’ he joked. ‘Those kids don’t know how to throw. But actually, they’re getting seriously good at all this. They know how to pick up a tear gas canister the moment it lands and hurl it right back, how to stand upwind of the smoke and give your back to birdshot.’

We were hanging out by one of the entrances to the square, the mouth of Kasr el-Nil bridge. The mood was far lighter now. Night had fallen, the square was crowded with people and the usual motley crew of sellers with their carts – grilled corn, roasted sweet potato, pumpkin seeds with their white salt-coats – and, though fighting still continued on Mohammad Mahmoud, a direct attack on the square felt less and less likely.

Abdalla got a call, and stood up. ‘The slingshots have arrived,’ he announced with a grin. ‘Time to go try them out.’

Two horse-drawn carriages, of the elaborate gilded types that ferry canoodling lovers along the Nile, drew up in front of us. A group of young men materialized to offload its cargo – dozens of sandbags – and carried them into the square. A little while later, four men passed by carrying a huge tangle of barbed wire. More and more people were pouring in, many carrying supplies for the hospital and sit-in. I saw a group of young women I knew, their expressions grim, carrying thick woollen blankets and boxes full of juice and milk cartons. They looked like they had just got up from in front of their television or computer screens. They looked just the way I must have looked in the morning, when I arrived, before the square had worked its magic on me. Tahrir felt the way it had back in those eighteen wintery days of January–February. Though we’d come here many times in the interim, something was distinctly different this time. Our revolution had been revived.

 

Monday 21 November

On the metro home, a man (one of State Security’s many informants?) was swearing that he’d just been at the midan and that there was nothing going on, that it was all lies. The people sitting around shouted him down, saying they’d seen the videos with their own eyes, police beating and shooting, setting the square on fire, dragging a dead man into a rubbish heap. Suddenly the whole carriage was ablaze with conversation, everyone talking about Tahrir, and the consensus was that the police are the same as they have always been – brutal and merciless – and that it had to stop (though there was no mention of the hallowed army’s role in the bloodshed). The man got off the metro, silent and sheepish. The revolution was once again at a rolling boil, and we were reaching that point when people were once again behind us. I felt somehow in alignment with things, at rest in a way I hadn’t felt in a long while. Today I had been exactly where I was meant to be.

Abdalla got shot in the night. A live bullet hammered through his right leg, shattering his shin bone. While he was down, they shot him twice more with birdshot pellets, one in his shoulder, one in his thigh.

 

Tuesday 22 November

I’ve never seen the square so charged as I did on Tuesday. It was a little after midday and there was none of the milling around that characterized even the headiest days of the ‘first’ revolution. In January and February there was the humour, the signs, the rings of song and dance, the explosion of creativity, the smiles and sense of camaraderie. Today people were marching, chanting, stony-faced and resolute. By late afternoon it was packed, one of the most crowded days the square had ever seen.

We’d marched to the midan from Mustafa Mahmoud mosque, along the same route marches had taken on the 25th and 28th of January. We chanted Yasqut Yasqut Hokm Al-‘Askar – Down Down With Military Rule. We chanted Fil Tahrir Fi Nas Betmoot – People are Dying in Tahrir. We chanted Horreyya! – Freedom! – four rhythmic claps and arms stretched wide into the air.

We called on onlookers to join us, asking why they were silent: had they got their rights, did their brothers not die? The reaction was reassuring. A lot of people had come out to watch, some cheering us on from their balconies. When we chanted Inzil! Inzil! (Come out! Come out!) a young man at a window pointed to the baby he was cradling with a smile and a shrug, but pumped his fist to let us know he was with us in spirit. Many stood on the pavement, filming the march with their cameras and mobile phones. Some faces were inscrutable, but I sensed none of the hostility or disdain that constituted the usual reaction to demonstrations in previous months. By the end of the march, our numbers had swelled.

We went to the hospital to see Abdalla. He had been brought in the night before, but had to wait eight hours to go into surgery. Ambulances screeched in front of the Accident & Emergency entrance nonstop, hauling in scores of critically injured protestors from the square, but the ones who would die if they were not operated on immediately – the ones who had been shot with live bullets in the head or chest – had to be seen to first. He waited in a line in front of the operating theatre – one out, the next one in.

It was a relief to see that he was still able to smile and joke, despite being dizzy and nauseous from the anaesthetic, despite the two metal plates that were now in his leg and the long weeks of recovery to come. I was amused at how, even under these humbling circumstances, this gawky man-boy maintained his strangely princely manner. ‘Excuse me, I’m about to vomit,’ he would announce before leaning over the side of his bed and doing so carefully into the bin; and, ‘I bid you goodnight’ in an ironic classical Arabic, before his eyelids drooped down.

As we left the hospital a small crowd had gathered around the television in the lobby. Tantawi was giving a speech. No admission of responsibility for the bloodshed; he’d ‘accepted’ the puppet government’s resignation; the elections would go on as planned, despite calls for a postponement, despite the fact that many parties and candidates (but not, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, who were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations) had suspended their campaigns in protest. His eyes were sunken, his voice higher-pitched than I had imagined. I realized I’d never heard him speak before. There were lines lifted word-for-word from Mubarak’s first speech ten months earlier, the familiar weak protestations that he had never sought power. We’d played this tired game before – best of three? I was happy to see that everyone watching was waving him away in disgust. A middle-aged woman called out at the screen, ‘You’ll go too, just like the one before you, you’ll go.’

Two young men outside the hospital’s front door were giving out cloth masks. Even a couple of miles from the midan, the effects of the tear gas were felt, and as we got closer our skin began to sting, our eyes to stream. We walked in, trying to get away from Mohammad Mahmoud, to a place where we could catch a breath, but the gas seemed all-pervasive, even deep into the square. The cloth surgeon’s masks were no good now: we fumbled with our black plastic masks, strapping them on and trying to inhale as we picked our way through the landscape strewn with people stumbling around, faces red, eyes streaming, some coughing and gasping for breath. I felt nauseous. The strange thing was no bombs had been fired directly into the square, and there was none of the white smoke that accompanies them. Some said it was just the wind blowing the gas our way, but it felt too persistent to be a gust of wind. A girl, tears coursing down her face, was saying, ‘This gas is different, I swear, it’s different even from yesterday’s.’ A woman told a man that she was five months pregnant, that she had been helping out in Mohammad Mahmoud, and her doctor had just told her that the gas she’d inhaled could cause serious harm to her baby. Hala suddenly felt weak: she seemed barely able to stand and complained of stomach pains. We walked her out of the midan, along Kasr el-Nil bridge, to put her into a taxi home. Along the way we saw a teenage boy passed out, his friends crowding around him. At first they were trying to revive him with water and pats to his cheeks, but as his face began to turn blue, they scooped him up, clumsily, all limbs, and rushed off in the direction of the field hospital.

When I got home I stripped off everything I was wearing, including socks and underwear, and rolled it all into a ball. I pushed it into the washing machine and took a shower. Then I went online. On Facebook and Twitter people were talking about the gas. I read an article that claimed that the metro ventilation openings scattered throughout the square had been used to disseminate it. A friend of mine had set up a task force to investigate this new gas. He suspected it might be CR – a carcinogen, banned in the US for riot control, lethal in large doses. ‘The U.S. military classification for this chemical agent,’ I read on Wikipedia, ‘is combat class chemical weapon causing serious side effects for humans.’ My smiling profile picture seemed incongruous with the increasingly grim news. The following day two friends would report coughing up blood, and a doctor at the field hospital in Tahrir – a young woman named Rania – would go into a coma and die when the hospital was directly hit with round after round of the gas.

All night long I thrash around. Into my dreams seep thoughts of toxic gas, and I wonder, in a paranoia that half-sleep magnifies, about my hair, long and tangled and snaking around me, my hair that I have not washed because it was late and cold and I was tired, about my hair contaminating the pillow and sheets and the covers I pull over my head.

 

Wednesday 23 November

It has become normal for a friend like Hala to turn ferocious, suddenly, on the phone, saying God curse them all, God take revenge, before I used to have a bit of sympathy for the lower-down officers but just look at the facts – one side is fighting for a cause, the other beating and shooting and brutalizing and for what? Just to follow orders? They’re monsters just like their bosses, their hearts are just as blind.

For some reason I don’t feel anger.

The hospital again, then back to the midan. Word on Twitter is that they’re arresting people around the entrance closest to us. We buy medical supplies but distribute them among our backpacks instead of carrying them in boxes and plastic bags. I remember now the image of medical supplies confiscated and thrown into the river in early February, I remember how people were detained for carrying even large quantities of food in the vicinity of the square. We have to plan our entrance carefully. We take a taxi, then veer off left just before the entrance, and get out to walk through the back alleyways. We jam on our gas masks, mine is too tight and choking me, but there was no time to mess around with it. We walk to the first field hospital on the way. We’re about to offload all our bags when a doctor appears. That’s enough, he says, taking just a few bottles. He says it’s better to give a few bottles to each of the field hospitals if they need it, and asks us pointedly keep the rest with us until tomorrow. ‘Otherwise they will be abused,’ he says in English. I’m not sure what he means. The square feels strange, threatening. It’s only 10 p.m. but it feels far too late to be outside. We stumble through it, breath short, eyes blind with gas-tears, and it feels like a warzone, huge piles of rubbish, the haze of gas and bonfire smoke, young men with bandaged heads and arms in casts lying on the edges under thick rough blankets, sirens, sirens, the incessant scream of ambulance sirens, and as we go down into the underground, hordes of young men are coming towards us, heading the opposite way up to the square, young guys in goggles and cloth masks and gas masks, some with scarves covering their faces, looking like an advancing army.

 

Thursday 24 November

The fighting stopped on Thursday. Five days too late, the army decided to build a concrete wall on Mohammad Mahmoud to separate the two sides, as though they, too, were not a party to this. The Minister of the Interior denied that a single bullet had been shot, rubber or live. A press conference with two members of the military junta took place during which they made similarly ludicrous statements. The Confederacy of Dunces. Tantawi appointed as new puppet prime minister a man called Ganzoury who had been prime minister in the nineties, during the Mubarak era, presiding over an honourable roster of corrupt ministers, many of whom were now in jail. Twitter was awash with jokes at the seventy-eight-year-old’s expense: the hashtag immediately assigned to him was #GanzouryTimes. A group of activists relocated their sit-in to the cabinet building to protest the appointment of a puppet minister to a puppet government. On Thursday morning one of them was run over by a Central Security armoured vehicle.

 

Friday 25 November

Over the weekend the square became carnivalesque again. Fireworks were set off, their sharp cracks making me jump, my heart hammering in my chest, until I realized what they were. Too raw, still, too close. The march that morning was led by Ahmad Harrara, a young dentist who’d lost his right eye on 28 January, and his left eye on Saturday, 19 November. I saw several young men in the march with a bandage secured to one side of their face, covering one of their eyes. Again, the eyes, again and again, they shoot for the eyes. I had an image of a whole generation of young men wearing eye patches; our children will see them in the street and know why. The Kasr el-Nil Bridge that leads to the square is flanked by a pair of large stone lions on either end. On Friday someone had covered the right eye of one of the lions with a big white bandage.

Talks about a civilian council or national salvation government to replace the military junta were underway and had been for days, but the politicians dithered and dallied in their back rooms. Tahrir was once again howling, and Tahrir was once again leaderless, but this time it did not work to its advantage.

 

Monday 28 November

On Monday I woke up in a rage about the elections. This past week, new life had been breathed into our revolution, but for that to happen, for public anger to have reached that second tipping point, there was a great pool of blood – ninety dead, at the last count, and eight thousand injured. And now it has passed, and nothing has happened. Now it’s all last week, and people have forgotten. The regime still stands, monstrous and unapologetic. They have fed us this sham of an election, knowing that the span of our collective memory is – for those who are trying to roll the tape backwards, to trap us in an eternal loop of déjà vu – mercifully short.

On Monday I read about the big turnout for the first day of the elections, thousands of people standing patiently in hours-long lines. I read the words ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’, I read about a sixty-year-old woman holding her pinkie aloft, proudly purple-inked, saying this is the first time she has ever voted in her life. I don’t know where the tears came from, but out they poured. I felt like a top that had been twisted tight for one long week, and had suddenly been sent spinning.

 

Tuesday 29 November

On Monday I raged, and on Tuesday I went to vote. My instinct had been to boycott, and I still feel that was the strictly moral choice. My decision was a response to the call from some activists for the need to fight this battle from within the political arena as well as on the streets. There was also the argument that the only people who were considering a boycott were the liberal revolutionaries, whose chances at a political stake were slim and would not bear further erosion. In any case, I went to vote. It was uneventful. My electoral committee was virtually empty. I looked at the huge ballot paper with its incongruously childish candidate symbols (mango or dustbin or pistol?) and chose The Revolution Continues. I made my mark, going over it several times with my pen, the ink pooling thicker and darker.

I know it’s far from over. I know it will take years. I know, I hope, that things will not go back to the way they were, that we will not succumb to the magic sleep-dust. But I just wonder. I did not know any of the people who died in January and February. During the Maspero massacre in October, a young man died whom I later found out to be a friend of a friend. Last week two of my friends were wounded, as well as many more people I know. It’s getting closer, you see. Every wave will be more violent, will radicalize people who were once far from the front lines, as the bullets become no longer an abstraction but real steel in the limbs, the eyes, the heartflesh of their loved ones. I remember on Sunday wanting to ask Hani if he was not afraid to die. At some point in the week I began to understand, and the question became moot.

Two days ago a shipment arrived at Suez port from the United States, consisting of 7 tonnes of tear gas, with 14 more on the way. Today it made its way safely to the storage facilities of the Interior Ministry in Cairo.


Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

Owen Freeman | Interview
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