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Trapped! The Plight of Domestic Workers in Lebanon

6 min read.

A severe economic crisis followed by the COVID-19 pandemic have had a deep impact on African domestic workers living and working in Lebanon. Some homeless female workers from Sierra Leone have found refuge in shelters, but resources to sustain them are drying up.

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Trapped! The Plight of Domestic Workers in Lebanon
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In a one-bedroom apartment in Beirut’s southern neighbourhood of Kola, fifteen women from Sierra Leone are confined day and night. After losing their jobs, or escaping abusive households, their only source of food and shelter is the local Sierra Leonean charity that rents the apartment. Social distancing, imposed amidst the current lockdown, is a privilege they cannot afford. At night, in this 15-square-metre room, they all sleep together on covers surrounded by suitcases. Some dream of returning home, while others wait for the lockdown’s end, hoping they will find work that will enable them to send money to their families again.

Mariam, a 26-year-old Sierra Leonean living at the shelter, arrived in Lebanon in July 2019, with the highest hopes built on the heaviest lies. (Miriam’s name and other names have been changed in this article to protect the women’s identities.) This mother of two from Nakin, in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, used to be a teacher until she crossed paths with a local recruiting agency. It advised her to travel to Lebanon to become a domestic worker, promising she would double her salary and be able to support her family. It was an offer she could not refuse, though she could not afford the agent’s service fee. Mariam and her family decided to contract a loan in order to pay the $2000 fee, her ticket to a seemingly better future.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo. Aline Deschamps

Nine months after her arrival, amidst Lebanon’s most severe economic crisis in decades, Mariam had still not been paid by her employer. After complaining to her agency, she was locked up in the bathroom for days, and beaten, or “flogged”, as she says. She decided to run away to save her life. Mariam roamed the streets of Beirut with only $1 in her pocket, until she was brought to the shelter, thanks to her friends from Sierra Leone. Fears of a COVID-19 epidemic were growing, doors were shutting and borders closing. “This is not a nightmare, this is a deadmare,” Mariam recalls saying to herself.

Mariam’s story is not uncommon. An estimated 250,000 domestic workers from a host of African and Southeast Asian countries reside in Lebanon. They are subject to the kafala system, a sponsorship structure that legally binds foreign workers to their local employers and which, according to Amnesty International, “increases their risk of suffering labour exploitation, forced labour and trafficking, and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress”. Most domestic workers earned monthly wages of between $150 and $300 before the country was hit by an economic recession in October 2019, and then by the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker calling relatives, after her phone was confiscated for months.

Sierra Leonean domestic worker calling relatives, after her phone was confiscated for months. Photo. Aline Deschamps

On March 15, the Lebanese government announced a lockdown to prevent COVID-19’s spread. Like elsewhere around the world, all non-essential businesses were shut and families were summoned to stay home. For the country’s most vulnerable population, whose sources of income were already compromised by the ongoing economic crisis, this was another nail in the coffin.

An estimated 250,000 domestic workers from a host of African and Southeast Asian countries reside in Lebanon. They are subject to the kafala system, a sponsorship structure that legally binds foreign workers to their local employers…

For the women who found refuge at the Sierra Leone Committee’s shelter, things were even grimmer. Baylor Jalloh, the vice president of the Committee, explains: “During the economic crisis all the women here were working without getting paid, pushing some of them to escape their households. Now they are being thrown outside of [their] homes.”

Domestic workers rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee. They see themselves as a sisterhood.

Domestic workers rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee. They see themselves as a sisterhood. Photo. Aline Deschamps

Out of the 75 women currently hosted by the Sierra Leone Committee’s shelters, 20 were laid off during the COVID-19 crisis. Now they have no other choice except to roam the streets in search of money and food, risking exposure.

The lockdown has also made it almost impossible for homeless domestic workers to find food assistance or refuge. Mosques and churches, which sometimes used to provide food, have shut their doors. Humanitarian organisations and local NGOs have had to put some programmes on hold, and are now sounding the alarm. Madeleine Maxwell Hart, the project coordinator at Amel Association International, warns: “Shelters are in full capacity now.”

The lockdown has also made it almost impossible for homeless domestic workers to find food assistance or refuge. Mosques and churches, which sometimes used to provide food, have shut their doors.

As of April 28, Lebanon has 717 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 24 deaths. Many of the women at the shelter refuse to go out. Fear is omnipresent among them, especially because they do not feel they can access healthcare. “Of course we are so afraid of the virus. In Sierra Leone we already have one experience: corona is the sister of Ebola,” says Mariam, remembering the epidemic which killed thousands in Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2015. “We don’t have anything to protect ourselves against the corona. We just use our traditional medicine: the moringa leaves.”

Moringa, a medicine used by the rescued women.

Moringa, a medicine used by the rescued women. Photo. Aline Deschamps

Imane El Hayek, a case worker at the Lebanese NGO Migrant Community Centre, explains why many might feel they cannot count on the healthcare system: “Though domestic workers can get tested for free […] many undocumented workers may be more reluctant to try to seek medical help or testing because they are scared they may be arrested on the way,” she says.
Hart adds, “As far as we know we have not heard of anyone without a residency being targeted when they went testing, but you do need a copy of your ID. And many domestic workers don’t have it because it has often been confiscated when they arrived in Lebanon. And they don’t have a copy in most cases. This is a big challenge.”

El Hayek stresses that “migrants are also more vulnerable to the coronavirus in this situation, mostly because of their living conditions in more crowded places. They do not have the luxury to self-isolate. They do not have private transportation, so they are more likely to use public transport. (…) Most of them have limited access to clean water, gloves, masks, and anything that is recommended for self-protection.”

Domestic worker rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee in Lebanon.

Domestic worker rescued by the Sierra Leone Committee in Lebanon. Photo. Aline Deschamps

When getting help from the outside becomes hopeless, some members of the community take matters into their own hands, in solidarity with those most in need. “When I saw my sisters’ problems, I forgot about my own,” says Jalloh, who also recently lost his job as a tailor. Over the last two months, his network and efforts have helped the committee save 20 women from homelessness and hunger.

Despite being essential for homeless and penniless migrants, such relief initiatives are hanging by a thread. Indeed, they rely on the goodwill of a few individuals who are also impacted by the lockdown. The committee’s president, Mousa Sasour, used to set aside a part of his salary for the committee. Today he has no income and struggles to find enough money to sustain the 75 women that the committee supports. Apart from contributions by its members, the Committee can only count on private donations.

When asked where her hopes reside, Tenneh, 23, responds: “After God there is only the Committee. Besides that, there is nothing.”

Mariam and her flatmates have managed to gather some money to pay for an internet connection. “We speak to our families everyday, this is the only thing that makes us happy here,” they say.

Facing the situation with other women from Sierra Leone also helps. “We do everything together, we cook together, we sleep together. Everything we do is in unity,” declares Mariam as the women around her nod their heads in agreement.

Prayers in the shared bedroom.

Prayers in the shared bedroom. Photo. Aline Deschamps

For these women, all between 20 and 30 years old, the future looks grim. Sending remittances back home was the only reason they left their country. Now, some of the women’s parents are sending money for their daughters’ survival.

“They are selling their lands to pay for our bills,” says Mariam in disbelief.

This situation is bound to become unsustainable as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads in Africa, forcing countries like Sierra Leone into lockdown. A few women already reported that their close ones have lost their jobs.

For these women, all between 20 and 30 years old, the future looks grim. Sending remittances back home was the only reason they left their country. Now, some of the women’s parents are sending money for their daughters’ survival.

When asked about the future, the women sigh and raise their eyes to the sky. Will the sanitary and economic conditions allow them to find jobs again once the lockdown ends? If not, what will happen when neither community relief initiatives nor families are able to provide food and shelter?

“If I did not have this Committee, I would have to prostitute. How else could I eat?” fears Tenneh.

Some days, Tenneh and the women cook traditional food to comfort themselves and remember home. They even managed to find cassava leaf, a Sierra Leonean favourite, from which they make a spicy sauce to eat with rice. This leaves them with a glimpse of a smile on their faces.

This post is from a new partnership between The Elephant and Africa Is a Country. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week

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Aline Deschamps is a freelance writer and photographer focusing on the subjects of identity, migration, and resilience. Paul Fargues is an economic analyst and project manager specialized in development finance for crises contexts.

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Philosophy for the People

For philosophy to be relevant in Africa, it must democratize and address contemporary social problems.

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In late September 2022, a consortium of universities hosted by the Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale in Yaounde, Cameroon held an “Ethicslab” to deliberate on the theme, “Justice, Democracy and Diversity.” The meeting brought together doctoral candidates in philosophy from Cameroon, Canada, Nigeria, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be mentored by experts. Some of those experts included Dany Rondeau (Canada), Geert Demuijnck (France, based in the Netherlands), and Bernard Gagnon (Canada).

The driving force behind the event was Thierry Ngosso, a young Cameroonian philosopher based  at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. Ngosso’s dream has been to deliver important philosophical lessons in a readily digestible way to younger African scholars while at the same time aiming for social transformation.

The study of philosophy in the continent is marked by all-too-familiar colonial linguistic and political divisions: the anglophone sector fastened to the thought of figures such as John Rawls and analytic philosophy, while francophone countries usually follow the dictates of continental philosophy. Ngosso thinks it is time to collapse these age-old colonial divisions. Also, philosophy seems removed from pressing issues, such as poverty. It can certainly be successfully re-energized by interrogating topics such as ethics and health, ethics and education, ethics and business, politics, the environment, and so on to broaden and deepen linkages between the discipline and urgent contemporary issues.

Nonetheless, philosophy has always been valued in Cameroon’s education system. As early as high school, students are introduced to the discipline. At postgraduate levels, there are various social media forums where students debate philosophical concerns of mutual interest. These debates are usually vibrant and engrossing.

Since its inception in 2019, the Ethicslab has been inviting two or three keynote speakers from disciplines such as sociology, political science and history to brainstorm about the intellectual concerns it seeks to tackle. The Ethicslab is concerned with issues of normativity and social change. Such an approach obviously grants philosophy an urgency, purpose and social transformational energy.

The Ethicslab is an intellectual experiment to identify the future stars of theoretical thought on the continent. During the 2022 edition of the event, quite a few promising upcoming scholars further etched their names;  Benjamin Olujohungbe (Nigeria), Charles Dine (Cameroon/Canada), Hammadou Yaya (Cameroon),  Opeyemi Gbadegesin (Nigeria), Elisanne Pellerin (Canada), Tatiana Nganti (Cameroon), Henri Gbadi Finimonga (DRC), Kakmeni Schaller (Cameroon), Eric Vernuy Suyru (Cameroon) and Ndedi Emma Maximine Ndjandjo (Cameroon). All these individuals are not only being trained in the rigors of theoretical reflection but also in the ethics of mutuality and reciprocity. Although they come from varied national, linguistic, and institutional backgrounds, the objective is to establish commonalities based on universally accepted cultural and human values.

Ultimately, Ngosso is interested in effecting meaningful social change in African communities through the study and use of philosophy. He plans to find funding for about ten doctoral students and thirty postdoctoral scholars in the discipline within the next five years. He also intends to shift the nodes of perception regarding the African continent from an ostensibly external locus to largely endogenous sources. To realize these grand aims, Ngosso has had to battle with numerous bureaucratic obstacles. The quest to change societies from within also entails transforming the traditional character and functions of academic institutions and establishments. This is no small task. What Ngosso has been able to do is wrest a degree of flexibility in how he operates within and amongst institutions. He is currently employed by the University of Maroua, Cameroon, holds an ongoing research fellowship at the University of St. Gallen, where he is based, and is a research associate of Universite’ Catholique d’Afrique Centrale. Within an African context, and perhaps any other setting in the world, such institutional flexibility and mobility are rare. But this is precisely the sort of liberty Ngosso requires in accomplishing his stated mission of social change.

Perhaps as part of ongoing efforts to demystify the study of philosophy, Ngosso arranged a trip to Kribi for all the participants of the 2022 Ethicslab. Kribi, a coastal town, is a perfect spot to unwind. Its coast is replete with tourist attractions such as the magisterial Lobe Falls, a pristine array of waterfalls nestled within Kribi beach. The Atlantic ocean is always enticingly open for a swim after intense brainstorming or away from the diurnal pressures of everyday life. There are also amazing seaside resorts and restaurants and the most delightful varieties of seafood to savor.

In 2024, Ngosso plans a grand event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ethicslab. In this, he will have accomplished the entrenchment of modern philosophy in Africa, concomitant globalization of its multicultural potentials and tentacles, and finally, a re-configuration of the discipline for the myriad demands and expectations of the 21st century.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

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It’s happening again. A Rwandan-backed rebel force threatens the Congolese provincial capital of Goma while foreign intervention is cobbled together to bail out the struggling Congolese army. Unlike the last two or three times this happened, the conflict faces the prospect of horrific escalation into interstate war. Rwandan and Kenyan troops are racing headfirst into a confrontation. As Kenya airlifts troops into the east under the flag of the East Africa Community (EAC), the Rwandan soldiers embedded within the M23 rebellion show no signs of backing down. These two African states, each claiming to have the most professional force in the region, will soon trade blows.

Nearly thirty years of complex, multilayered, and tragic war in the Great Lakes have led to this latest escalation. The eastern DRC never recovered from the deadly inferno that was “Africa’s great war,” a bitter conflict that drew in nine countries and killed as many as five million. While peace was declared in 2003, the embers of war continued to burn in the eastern DRC, where the war had injected violence into local politics. Local violence continues to blend with national- and regional-level politics. Rwanda, which has complex and often competitive relationships with Uganda and Burundi, has a history of repeatedly creating and supporting rebellions in Congo. While this current M23 rebellion has many Congolese members with genuine grievances, the force is historically constructed and supported by the Rwandan state. While it is unclear what exactly motivated this offensive, some point to Rwandan concerns over the growing influence of rival Uganda in the DRC. The relationship between Uganda and Rwanda is not straightforward, and there are reports that Ugandan elements have supported M23. The regional tensions at play here are unclear, as the Ugandan and Congolese states are not unitary actors. According to leaked UN reports, Rwanda is directly assisting this latest iteration of M23 with infantry, artillery, and logistics. It has easily beat back the Congolese regulars and their militia allies and downed UN and Congolese military aircraft.

In response to the escalation, the regional EAC has announced the deployment of a military force at the invitation of the DRC, its newest member. Kenya seems to have been the power player behind this intervention and has begun deploying its forces into the fight. The international community has slowly lost interest in the region, writing off the turbulence in the Great Lakes as an endemic low-intensity conflict, ignoring the possibility of an explosion. Some in Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, dream of an East African unified market where a pacified region ensures that Kenyan goods are supplied to Congolese consumers. Rwanda believes that it can only be secure if it has influence in Eastern Congo, where various rebel forces opposing the Rwandan regime have sheltered. When that influence wanes, Rwanda backs a rebellion to ensure that its influence continues.

Whether you believe that Rwandan meddling and Kenyan-backed EAC intervention are valid responses to the insecurity on their western flanks, the current escalatory track is dangerous. No one is backing down until blood is spilled. Both sides seem to underestimate the other’s will and ability.

The new kid on the block, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, demands a military solution and proclaims negotiations a failure. He is inviting foreign armies across the region into the country to bring him the peace he needs to salvage his falling popularity. All the while, the badly needed security sector reform remains stalled by the great Congolese patronage machine. Under the EAC regional force’s flag, Ugandan and Burundian forces are now in the DRC to pursue their own enemies on Congolese soil, raising the possibility of inciting countermobilization. The eastern Congolese conflict ecosystem often reacts to foreign bodies with a violent immune response that would further inflame the conflict.

The limited attention span that the international community reserves for Africa is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. Former US National Security Council Africa lead Cameron Hudson pronounced on Twitter and to The Telegraph that the war in Tigray was “the new great war for Africa.” Unfortunately, the ashes of the last great war are being stoked yet again. Few players in the international game seem to realize the stakes.

The US did send its top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to talk to both the Congolese and Rwandans. Blinken’s public statements were ripe with both-sidesisms and seemed to accept Rwandan behavior as a response to Congolese support to the genocidal Rwandan FDLR rebel group—a problematic assumption. The Congolese political elite, when being generous, complain that the US position is muddled and confused. This reasonable view is much less popular than theories that accuse the Americans of actively backing Rwandan president Kagame’s plots. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories are grounded in real historical US blindness to—and occasional support for—destructive Rwandan interventionism in the late 1990s.

The apathetic international response to the crisis stands in marked contrast to the global response to the previous M23 rebellion nearly ten years ago, when the US publicly pressured Rwanda to withdraw support for the group. In 2013, a combination of the Southern African Development Community’s intervention under the UN flag, the rise of a capable Congolese army colonel, and US pressure led to successful negotiations with Rwanda and the defeat of M23. This time, attempts by the EAC to bring a diplomatic solution have failed thus far, and it seems that military pressure is the only effective tool the community can bring to bear.

This conflict is not doomed to descend into a larger interstate war, but the region as a whole will have to grapple with the consequences if it does. The international community must bring more diplomatic levers to bear, and the EAC must question the sweeping mandate of their current intervention. Regardless, the war is on an escalatory path, and the Congolese of North Kivu will suffer first as foreign forces battle over their home yet again.

Evan Nachtrieb graduated with an honors bachelor’s degree in political studies from Pitzer College last May, where he wrote his thesis on protest and insurgency trends south of the Sahara. He is currently in California.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Twitter: Let It Burn!

Whether or not Twitter survives should be irrelevant to those committed to building a democratic public sphere.

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Elon Musk finally bought Twitter. Although everyone expected the move to quickly prove foolhardy, the speed of the implosion has been impressive. The latest gaffe is a failed attempt to monetize verification by requiring paid subscriptions for them, which has led to all manner of comical impersonations (one macabre highlight was a “verified” George W. Bush account tweeting “I miss killing Iraqis. “Tony Blair” responded with “Same tbh”). Some are watching with shock and horror and wondering if Twitter can be saved. But, when sulfur and fire rains, it is best not to look back.

Africa Is a Country managing editor, Boima Tucker, put it best some years ago: “Contrary to the utopian dreams of the early internet, the idea of a more democratic communications space has given way to a system of capitalist exploitation.” The thing to reckon with is the extent to which we have exaggerated the emancipatory potential of networked communication and social media, partly owing to our own psychic overinvestments in it. Which is not to deny that it has never shown democratic and egalitarian potential, but that’s never been what Twitter is forThere can be no right platform in the wrong world.

What was Twitter for then? In the New York Review of Books, Ben Tarnoff describes it as a “network of influence.” In a world characterized by the economization of everything, social media is the place to commodify the self, to transform one’s unique traits and personality into a product for public display. The main imperative online is to “stay on brand,” to cultivate an appealing enough persona in the endless “production of new genres of being human.”

The key contradiction of social media use, of course, is that even though these platforms appear to us as complete products that we participate in and consume, we are the ones responsible for ensuring their possibility in the first place. As the media scholar Christian Fuchs notes, “Digital work is the organization of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. These products can be online information, meanings, social relations, artifacts or social systems.” Thus, it is us who create the value of these platforms.

In a better world, these digital communications platforms would be democratically owned and operated. But one also wonders if in a better world they would be as necessary. Perhaps, when we are less socially disaffected, living in societies with social provision, an abundance of recreational public goods and less exploitative, dignifying work, then we would all have less reason to be online. For now, the question is: in a time when this ideal is nowhere close to being within view, how best can we use platforms like Twitter as tools to get us to that world?

The possible answers here are murky. Twitter seems like a critical piece of infrastructure for modern political life. Musk is not alone in thinking of it as a marketplace of ideas, as something like a digital town square. Yet, and especially in Africa, Twitter is not as popular a platform, and even on it, a minority of Twiteratti exert an outsized influence in terms of setting the discursive agenda. But setting aside the question of who is excluded from the digitalized public sphere of which Twitter is a cornerstone, the important question is whether the quality of political debate that takes place is healthy or desirable at all. Granted, it can be fun and cathartic, but at the best of times, amounts to hyper-politics. In Anton Jager’s explanation, this:

can only occur at a discursive level or within the prism of mediatic politics: every major event is scrutinized for its ideological character, this produces controversies which play out among increasingly clearly delineated camps on social media platforms and are then rebounded through each side’s preferred media outlets. Through this process much is politicized, but little is achieved.

We would lack critical self-awareness if we did not admit that Africa Is A Country is a venue whose existence greatly benefits from an online presence—so it goes for every media outlet. Tarnoff points out that “… if Twitter is not all that populous in absolute terms, it does exert considerable power over popular and elite discourses.” To lack an online presence is to reconcile oneself to irrelevance. Although, the news cycle itself is a disorienting vortex of one topic du jour to the next. It makes difficult the kind of long, slow, and sustained discourse-over-time that is the lifeblood of politics, and instead reduces everything into fleeting soundbites.

Nowhere is the modern phenomenon of what Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “pointillist time” more apparent than on Twitter. For Bauman, pointillist time is the experience of temporality as a series of eternal instants, and the present moment’s connection to the past and future “turns into gaps—with no bridges, and hopefully unbridgeable.” The consequence of this, is that “there is no room for the idea of ‘progress.’” Living through a mode where everything seems to be happening all at once, is both to experience time as what Walter Benjamin called “a “time of possibilities, a random time, open at any moment to the unforeseeable irruption of the new,” but curiously, at the same time, for everything to feel inert, and for nothing to seem genuinely possible.

For a while, notions of historical progress have been passé on the left, associated with Eurocentric theories of modernity. Now, more than ever, the idea is worth reclaiming. The Right today is no longer straightforwardly conservative, but nihilistic and anti-social, thriving on sowing deeper communal mistrust and paranoia. These are pathologies that flourish on Twitter. The alternative to media-fuelled hyper-politics and anti-politics is not real politics per some ideal type. Politics, in the first instance, is not defined by content, but by form. The reason our politics are empty and shallow is not because today’s political subject lacks virtues possessed by the subjects of yore. It’s because today’s political subject is barely one in the first place, lacking rootedness in those institutions that would have ordinarily shaped an individual’s clear sense of values and commitments. The alternative to digitized human association, as noted by many, is mass politics: only when the majority of citizens are meaningfully mobilized through civic and political organizations can we create a vibrant and substantive public sphere.

AIAC editor Sean Jacobs observed in his book, Media In Post-apartheid South Africa: “the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes is the decline of mass political parties and social movements.” Whether Twitter dies or not, and if it does, whether we should mourn it or not, should be beside the point for those committed to building a world of three-dimensional solidarity and justice.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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