‘Terror, Peril and Fate of Children’ by Ketaki Datta

Short Story ID- 3/2015

Seikh Suleiman was made to learn the knowhow of making a bomb.A bomb, which would kill thousands of people. At one go.

He knew next to nothing about it before. His father, a daily wage-earner of this village, earned just a modest sum of seventy rupees a day, when most people led a hand-to-mouth existence. They were a little well-off among them. Yet his parents dared weave dreams round him.

Abdul thought it right to send his nine-year-old son to the nearest madrasahfor getting initiated into the world of learning. Suleiman, however, did not like the classes of martial arts. The children were taught to hold the machine-gun, the pistol and crack explosives at lightning swiftness. The little kids did not love to explode the bombs, though each student was asked to pass in mock-tests before leaving the school premises. Suleiman did not like the suffocating ambience, with the high, long walls on all four sides, which lent a death-trap-like look to the cavernous ground. He heard his mother’s father, who taught history in one such madrasah in Pakistan, talk about Jalianwallahbagh massacre, where thousands of people were gunned down in a similar oval ground. His grandpa was in Punjab then.  Suleiman did not like the bearded teacher who imparted lessons on making explosives and martial art. He took after the butcher of their locality, who ruthlessly hacked the lambs to death and chopped the limbs to pieces in order to sell in the market, at an exorbitant rate.

Suleiman loved to look at the blue sky instead. Loved to listen to the cooing of the birds at the break of a dawn, to run and take the hand of the blind, old beggar while he tried to cross the dusty road, chock-a-block with bullock-carts or rickshaw-vans plying busily across the main thoroughfare, bordering the village. But his father wished to see his dream of getting his child ‘educated’ come true.  That was why,Suleiman was put into the local madrasah.

At cockcrow, he used to get up each morning and brush his teeth and sit with the primers. His mother came to place the breakfast on a wooden stool that his father bought for him from a flea market. The stool was artistically designed, having four legs like the paws of a lion, and the top fashioned out of ivory chips and teakwood. Suleiman loved to study for an hour or so in the morning, just after gobbling his morning fare. It took not less than forty-five minutes to reach the school by walking. His father pinned high hopes on him. His mother wished their hardship to come to an end as Suleiman would grow up to shoulder all responsibilities of the household. She kept having reverie all the time. As though, the golden days would arrive by a chariot and nudge her back to reality.

The first day in the school was quite memorable for Suleiman. IdrisMiah, the headmaster of that madrasah, delivered a lecture on the discipline of the school, the glorious history of this small madrasah, which though located in the suburb helped shape the minds of the great men like Mohsin Sir, HalimMiah and a few other respectable gentlemen of this hamlet, lying on the border of Manmathpur district of West Bengal. However, IdrisMiah came here lately as the headmaster. Suleiman was happy to listen to the encouraging speech before entering the classroom. Maula Ibrahim came to introduce them with the suraand ayyatof the Holy Quran. Suleiman watched his grandfather bending down on his knees and slouching on the floor for offering azaanto Lord Allah, five times a day. But, he never got so impressed by the habit to follow it such regularly. Learning mathematics, reading pages from vernacular textbooks and Arabic primer went on well till something unusual and less thrilling was appended to their curriculum.

Each afternoon, they used to have their midday meal and come back to the classroom to resume their daily schedule. But that afternoon appeared somewhat strange to this slip of a boy. None of the teachers came to the class save IdrisMiah, the headmaster. Before the recess, a couple of classes had been taken, one by theMaulaand the other by the Arabic teacher. But the classes which they had in the afternoon went unattended. They were asked to sit silently in the class, without making any noise, as though, some breathtaking magic-show was about to begin. Suleiman did not have many friends in the school, save Ali. He looked at Ali and Ali turned his face to him and threw a curious glance. The lizards on the wall ran apprehensively though the reason was not clear to them, right then. Suleiman looked grave. Ali was petrified.

In that suffocating, breathtaking ambience, Ali and Suleiman sat closer to each other while the other brats huddled on the successive benches in two-three rows on each side. The headmaster was announced by the office-boy and he was followed by their martial art-trainer and three stout men, sporting beards beneath their chins, with sinister stares and brawny arms. They asked them to be present on each Friday for a class, in which they would be taught martial art and self-defending tactics like karate, jiu-jit-su, sword-fighting, so on. The headmaster distributed a few pamphlets among them and asked them not to take those away. He also assured them that the training would come for free. They would not have to pay a farthing for it. He asked them to read those leaflets in the class only and stack the papers up at the corner table, to be collected by the trainers later. The lizards on the wall ticked on and crawled helter-skelter on the wall of the classroom just after they left. Ali exchanged meaningful glances with Suleiman. They could not make out anything from the words on the leaflet, save jihad, bomb, sandpaper, and plastic-disc. What did they standfor, they wondered!

Coming home, Suleiman felt that more classes were being devoted to martial art and warfare- techniques. Butwhy? Would they be sent to fight for the country? Was this nation facing any threat from the neighbouring land or some other enemy? But, he dared not share this with any of his parents. He remembered, their headmaster asked them not to tell the parents of this special training. Again,it would come for free. Hence, no need to discuss with anyone, howsoever near and dear.  While having dinner, Suleiman felt like sharing the matter with his mother. But, he fought off the temptation by keeping silent. Next day, Ali, too, told him of his uneasy, studied reticence at home. The other boys of their class did not discuss anything regarding the martial art sessions. Did they maintain secrecy of this matter too? Again, why? Why was this training being imparted free of charge? They were here to be well-versed in the three r’s of knowledge. And, that was it. Why such additional training then?

That day, while Suleiman was riding piggyback on his father’s cycle to the school, he watched to his utter surprise, that, the boundary-wall was being made higher, around the school-premises. His father was happy to see that their village madrasahwas being paid heed to, by the district administration.  The brick-wall came up in place of the mud-wall. Suleiman entered the classroom, sat beside Ali. To his utter dismay, headmaster IdrisMiah, dissolved all the classes scheduled for the day. Suleiman’s heart danced in joy, sensing an announcement of a holiday for some unknown, though inevitable reason. But, alack, no, they had to stay back in the classroom till the martial art trainers turned up. But, that day was not a Friday!  Why then? Ali and Suleiman were at their wits’ end. However, they had no other option but to obey the headmaster.

In about fifteen minutes, the three musclemen entered, closed the door, and, trotted off their spiel in a comprehensible language. They did not have much trouble to follow their speech. Suleiman could gatherthat, their existence stood threatened by some unfriendly people. However, it was not clear, who they were. And, again, in which way they were in jeopardy. In easy language, they said, “You have to help us counter this attack. We are passing through turbulent times. We need the young ones among us to come forward to help us out. As we are going to rebel against the injustice meted out to us, we should limber ourselves up with light work-outs and then we should go for the successive lessons. Do not miss these sessions.  Obey our order and we will love you. Your headmaster will be affectionate to you all.”

The Maula came and explained the ayyatsin detail and they were taken for a mass-drill in the playground. Suleiman and Ali followed all the instructions meticulously and won their attention. The bearded man, who was senior among them, took Ali and Suleiman in deep embrace and asked them to attend a few more classes with a senior group, the following day.

Suleiman’s father, after the evening prayer, asked him,“Son, I am happy to see you attending the classes so regularly! What do you learn actually? I did not get this opportunity to attend classes in such holy precincts of a madrasahin my childhood. Tell me please”. Avidity was writ large on his father’s face. But what would he say? Would it be right to say, that, he was being tutored to be a jihadist? Or, should he say, that, he was being taught mathematics, Arabic and sura and ayyatsofthe HolyQuran? Really, he was in a fix. Classes for these subjects grew fewer these days. But, he chose to fabricate the truth a bit, and rejoined, “Abbu, I love to learn mathematics and Arabic. The Maulavi teaches us thesuraand ayyats of the Holy Quran, very affectionately.” His father stuck a reverent, dewy-eyed gaze on him. Suleiman veered his eyes to avoid the glance and felt a twitch of sadness within. Why did he have to lie, so blatantly?

Day after day, new and newer lessons on martial art, jiujitsu, kung fu, boxing, so forth, were being imparted. Within a few months, within the towering brick-wall, their classes on hide-and-seek game with the enemy and guerilla-tactics were taken. Suleiman could not love these classes, though, every day, a page from a book in Bengali was being read out to them. Suleiman could not feel the import of the lines, which ran as follows:

“We must snatch freedom for us, reverence for our faith with the prick of the bayonet of a gun. We cannot put up with the injustice meted out to us so often.  We shall not tolerate the inequality with which we are treated. We should raise our voices in protest, we will retaliate a slap with a slap, a tooth and an eye with their equal counterparts. If we are insulted, if our faith is desecrated, we have every right to fight for it, we must have to be rebels then. Inshallah, we must win the stake. Come brothers, let’s fight for a noble cause….”

The voice trailed off to silence as Suleiman was being transported to a world of dreams and visions, where, he could see himself, flanked by his father and mother on both sides and grandpa rejoicing over his winning a job. He was no more a boy of nine, but, of twenty. He must translate his father’s dream into reality. Do he must! That was why, he was here. His father paid the tuition-fees through his nose. Making both ends meet, paying for a child’s education – all told on his health. He suffered from asthma, but, went without treatment. He had to see his vision translated to reality, after all.

A couple of years passed by, in the meantime. Suleiman began to attend the military training sessions more keenly than the usual studies, which seemed a bit boring these days. His father, Abdul, even, had been won to the belief that their own people were in peril. In order to save their dignity, they must have to sacrifice a lot. But, he did not have the faintest, that, he was going to sacrifice the dream, he wove round his son. His son’s future.Their wellbeing.Wellbeing of the family.

Suleiman did not miss the martial art classes these days. The trainer, the grim-faced, giant-like, bearded man loved the way Suleiman held the pistol and aimed at the given target.  Even a week back, his hand shook, but now, he himself was amazed to note the accuracy of his aim, let alone the coach. Father asked him several times how his studies went, what he would dream to be in future, he even gave him to understand that he built all his hopes on him. Did he fear of having his hopes belied? But, what for?He was on the right track, after all! He carried his studies along, he loved to learn the tactics of warfare simultaneously. Was it a crime to learn military tactics? That was obviously needed for defending oneself.

One day, Suleiman overheard the discussion IdrisMiah was having with their trainer—save the word jihad, he understood all. What did jihadmean? He thought of asking his father many a time, but, he could not muster enough courage to do so. But, much later, he fashioned out a meaning of the word in his own way: protest or rebellion against something which forced one into shackles. He might go wrong somewhere, but, the trainer repeatedly emphasized the words:fikr, zulm, shikhayat, sabak—all perhaps stood for protest or rebellion or something closer in meaning. Didn’t they? He eavesdropped as the trainers and IdrisMiah conversed:

“Listen, Idris, if we can make these boys learn the nitty-gritty of martial art that would be great for us. But, they should also learn the art of aggressive attacks. A troop is coming from Middle East, next week, through a tough route. They will join us to impart lessons to these young boys. We have to retaliate the zulmof the most powerful force of the world in the Middle East, Gaza strip andIraq. If the commoners of these places have no fikr to change their deplorable fate, we would love to take the onus on our shoulders and must teach the oppressors a good sabak.  Repeated shikhayat, I am sure, would fetch unexpected results,” IdrisMiah nodded and looked angry as the bearded man lectured. It seemed, as though, IdrisMiah would go out to fight the oppressors right then, if asked.

Sheikh Suleiman was around, learning the art of bomb-making. However, he had no idea whether this skill was just to add to his knowledge of military training or for something else. But every iota of his misgiving stood crystal clear, when he was asked to stand in the front row as the expert-team arrived from the Middle East, braving all odds on their way. After halting at theneighbouring nation for a week, they sneaked into our country, stealthily. Suleiman was taken by fear to see the horrifying, murderous glances of the two strapping fellows, who had come to teach them the art of bomb-making in a sophisticated manner. They ensured that the boundary-wall was high to hide them and their nefarious activities. They continued their lectures and practical demonstrations for over a couple of days.

During recess, Ali sidled up to Suleiman to share his view, “We are learning the art of warfare, mathematics, the Holy Quran, Arabic—all for the betterment of our future, aren’t we? But my father was asking me yesterday, what we actually learn here. I told him of the reading-writing-based subjects only and nothing more. But, he doubts what I say.” Suleiman rejoined, “My father knows a bit, but not the whole of the matter. Ali, are we on the right track? Are we being trapped somehow? Is it true that our people are in real distress in the countries, the coach mentioned the other day? What will we do? Will we have to go there to help them out? That tooat this tenderage?”Both the boys threw looks of dejection at the sky above, which seemed inexpressive, nonchalant, unconcerned.

Why doesn’t any bell go here, in this school? The teachers go by their watch, they come to the class when the time for a particular period is shown on their watch, and, leave accordingly. But, the students are not allowed to wear watches on their wrists. They have to attend the classes as scheduled, and, that is all. They have to attend all the classes meticulously and especial emphasis is added to the martial art and military tactics classes.

“Aren’t you all interested in bomb-making?” the coach’s voice was so harsh and rude that the boys looked at him speechless, without answering.

“No answer?!Okay, no way, you should learn it. Ask me, why? Okay, don’t ask me. Only do, what I say,” and in a peremptory voice he went on lecturing on the modus operandi of a bomb. This was the first time in his life Suleiman heard of a booby-trapped car! A bomb had to be kept inside the car, without the knowledge of its owner or the chauffeur, and, to make it explode on time!! Suleiman and Ali came close to each other in fear. They were children, after all!

Practical sessions followed immediately after.

Neither Suleiman nor Ali enjoyed it. The rest of the class sat blanched in fear. But, they were not supposed to open their mouths outside. Hence, they did not dare inform their parents. Again, their parents were being brainwashed by their teachers, in the meantime—they learnt.

The boys of the class learnt the art of bomb-making with trepidations in their heart. They were asked to practice for a week. They had to master it by all means. So, keeping aside the books of mathematics, Arabic and vernacular, they concentrated on this art only. The classes of Arabic, mathematics and vernacular subjects were attended by them, simultaneously, though half-heartedly. But, this class had to be attended with all attention, as they might run the risk of being drubbed or punished ruthlessly. This went on for a month. The guardians did not interfere, as they knew that this military training was just an extension of the regular schedule. Again, the boys were being trained to be all square, that too, free of charge!

That morning was cloudy, and, somewhat grim when they reached their school, entered the classroom and sat for their usual Arabic lessons. The Arabic teacher came on time and started imparting lessons.  Of course, after a couple of classes, the military lessons were to follow. But, the three bearded trainers, with horrifying look, barged into the classroom and asked the Arabic teacher to call it a day in no time. They seemed to be in a tearing hurry. The tallest among them faced the class and chose three-four students from among some forty and asked them to accompany them immediately. But where? The boys were not even twelve years of age, and, they hummed and hawed before moving along with them. However, their irascible rebuke goaded them on to the way, as directed.

They took Ali, Suleiman, Ashraf and Asif to a mud-house nearby and asked them to prepare the ingredients for the incendiary bombs, they needed soon. The boys, pale in fear, exchanged glances. But, they had no way to escape. Suleiman gathered courage to ask in a feeble voice, “When can we leave for home?” The fat man snapped at him, “Just when you all finish doing the job, you will be sent to your school and from there you can go home, as usual. But, you should not share anything with anyone at home.” All of them nodded together, moving their heads up and down, nervously. With meticulous precision their work continued. They had no watch with them, no clock was there on the wall before them even. Naturally, they lost count of time.

They made not less than five timer-bombs and five ordinary incendiary explosives. When they were escorted to their school, the sun had already descended down the western horizon. All their classmates had left along with all teachers, save idrisMiah, the headmaster. Suleiman’s and Ali’s father stood in front of the entrance gate together. Anxiety was writ large on the fathers’ faces. Their faces lit up as the boys turned up at the bendof the lane. Suleiman’s father said to IdrisMiah, “But Sir, why was my son detained for so long? Anything serious?” The escort, who was stern-faced, interrupted peevishly, “What do you mean by ‘anything serious’? We took your son for an important assignment, which will save our community. Didn’t IdrisMiah tell you everything the other day? Go now, don’t discuss anything back home. Got me?”  Ali’s father and Abdul did not answer back. But, they looked worried as they left with their sons. The other two boys went home,on their own. None had come to take them away.

Thus, very often, they were being taken out of school, hampering their learning schedule. Suleiman’s father could not sit quiet anymore. One morning, he came and sought an interview with the headmaster. He protested against his son being taken out of school for some unknown assignments, of which he had not even been informed in detail. He suspected something fishy,that threatened the future of his son. Being a responsible father, how could he allowhis son to take a wrong course—he argued.

While talking to the headmaster, he had not even noticed when the tallest bearded ruffian came to stand behind him. As he expressed his concern, the bearded giant-like fellow came forward with a cool stare and intervened, “But, Abdul Miah, your son is being taken out for a noble cause. Don’t you feel like protesting against the injustice meted out to us, the followers of Islam, everywhere , especially in Iraq, Gaza, just to name a few? Don’t you think that we need young boys like your son, to assist us in organizing ‘jihad’ against the superpower which keeps our wings clipped, quite diplomatically? Why do you cry out, Sir? We are roping in thousand such boys to wage final war on these headstrong egoists. You are fortunate that we have chosen your son for this noble mission.Go away, go home, right now, and repent for what you said. Go, get lost!!”He echoed headmaster’s words, exactly. His ire was enough to unnerve Abdul, though he felt, something went amiss, somewhere.Where exactly, he could not make out, however!

Next afternoon, Suleiman came home on time. He was not taken anywhere for any task to accomplish. Next day went alike. Next to the next was similar too.

Again,the bearded trainers seemed to have evaporated in the air like camphor. They stopped  dropping by, as they used to. The classes ran same as before.

Abdul’s and Ali’s father heaved sighs of relief. At last, the madrasah came out of the unholy eclipse, they surmised.

But, scarcely ten days had passed by before a major bomb explosion had claimed the life of thousands of visitors to a movie-house in the adjacent town, which was actually the headquarterof a cluster of hamlets, to which theirs belonged.

The same afternoon, in another district town a booby-trapped car claimed the life of three top officials of a sleuth agency, which had been put up by the Capital to look into the terrorist activities on the border areas of West Bengal.

The third explosion shook administrative headquarters of Burdwan, to the bottom.

Abdul got the news from IdrisMiah, the headmaster, who came to their place that evening and cautioned them. He said repeatedly, “Be careful, I am there in case of any distress. Call me, if you feel the need, okay?” It was beyond the comprehension of Abdul Miah why he and Ali’s father and Ashraf’s and Asif’s fathers were to be wary of the subsequent happenings! Why, what for?  Their sons were yet to be adult. Again, all of them led a modest life. Their village was a perfect picture of communal harmony and peace, to be precise. Abdul could hardly fathom the depth of his concern. His son had done nothing on his own, unless instructed by his teachers of the school. Then,why was he being cautioned? And what for? Why would he have to seek IdrisMiah’s help? For what? Next day, even day after, all day long, these questions kept tormenting Abdul Miah. Even he discussed these issues with Ali’s father.

But all their doubts had curtain ringing down on them, when a jeep of cops came one morning to their village in search of IdrisMiah, who ran a madrasah in their locality. Idris was taken off with them to Calcutta for investigation. All the fathers, even mothers of the wards kept their fingers crossed. The school closed down interminably. Suleiman’s father and Ali’s father kept dropping by at each other’s place, pulling long faces, highly concerned about their son’s education. What next?

They were not on radio even, let alone a television set.  Hence, Ali’s father and Suleiman’s father made it a point to go to SuvanSeikh’s residence each afternoon, in the town, some ten kilometres off, to watch the news on T.V. They rode the bicycle to keep themselves abreast of the recent happenings. And, they also left a letter of appeal in the office of the District Magistrate to look into the case of the closed madrasah, which hampered children’s education of the locality. Their future stood the threat of irretrievable doom. They sought the Magistrate’s immediate intervention into this matter.

They waited with bated breath for the bomb-explosion news and recent findings. One evening, a long video-footage shown on the television rendered them dumb-founded. It showed how the miscreants masterminded this chain of bomb-explosions and both of them were stupefied to see IdrisMiah, the tallest,bearded, grim-looking trainer and the Arabic teacher being the prime accused in this abominable case of explosion! The news  itemalso apprised them of the ways in which they used to trap the kids in making  bombs. The comparatively short, bearded trainer was from aneighbouring country and sneaked through the border to cater to this murderous group the knowledge of chemical particles, needed for making bombs. Oh God, their dream of leaving their sons under the tutelage of such teachers was simply belied! These men were nabbed lately and still were being interrogated. However, they could not absolve themselves of the charge of explosion in both the sites. Next day, too, Ali’s father and Suleiman’s father went to watch the news programme. Few days later, it was aired that, all the accused in the bomb-explosion case had been remanded to police custody.

A month rolled by. Winter had set in. District Magistrate’s men came to have a look at the closed madrasah. They wondered why the boundary wall was raised so high. Suleiman and Ali were about to tell them, that they used to learn the art of bomb-making in these premises and also in a local hideout, which lay deserted as the scheming terrorists were there no more. And, surprisingly, they had no relatives in the village even. Why didn’tthey have either wife or child or any otherkith and kin with them? IdrisMiah;trainers of martial art; the Arabic teacher– all used to stay in a rented apartment. Why didn’t it strike the villagers that Idris and his men were to be closely observed?

Days passed by, even months followed. Suleiman was being taken to the Corporation School in the town, tucked at the back ofhis father, on his bicycle. Ali too followed suit. Some other boys of the village waited for the madrasah to re-open. Their education waited for long, no one knew how long. The District Magistrate assured them of opening the school soon. Since then, three Magistrates came and went to that administrative headquarters on transfer, but, none of the three could pull out the matter of the firm clasp of red-tapes.

Suleiman’s father started dreaming again, his mother went out for working on the field as a day-labourer in order to earn a few dimes extra. Life moved along in an orchestrated, calm pace till one morning, a jeep of cops came to interrogate Suleiman’s, Ali’s, Ashraf’s and Asif’s  fathers, as they were informed by IdrisMiah, the prime suspect of the serial bomb episode, that, they willingly participated in the jihad, allowing their sons to help Idris and his men for making bombs. All the fathers were crestfallen, were instantly taken by surprise, lost speech, and remanded to police custody, immediately after.

Suleiman, Ali, Ashraf and Asif kept drenching their mothers’ laps with tears and their mothers failed to feed the children as the provision was about to deplete within a few days.

IdrisMiah along with his accomplicewere thrown into the prison for life. And, the four innocent fathers of four immaculate children went rotting away behind the bars for months, waiting for the verdict to be delivered by the judge, who kept deferring their case by days, by months.

Eight months passed by. All the four children queued up each Friday before the mosque to say their prayers, which fell on deaf ears of the Almighty,and hence, went unanswered. The four destitute mothers went out to work in the field, made paper-packets and weaved wicker-baskets in their leisure hours to earn livelihood for their family members. They worked with hope of seeing their husbands someday, may be in a year or two.They were innocent, after all.

Both Suleiman and Ali went to the field to play that evening. They saw a cow was being taken by a few butchers of the village to be slaughtered.It was innocent, after all. The rickety legs of the cow trembled and it was stumbling while it walked. Did the cow feel that its end was nearing? Did it still hope against hope? The two boys’ hearts wrenched in pain—they knew not why!



Azaan: Holy Prayer.

Fikr: Concern.

Inshallah: Truly, in the name of God.

Jihad: Rebellion for a common cause that issued out of a belief.

Jihadist: Rebel or Protester.

Madrasah: A school for children of the Muslim community.

Maulavi,Maula: Chief Priest of a Mosque.

Sabak:  Tough lesson taught to someone for mending his ways.

Shikhayat: Warning.

Sura and Ayyat : Hymns and Sections.

Zulm: Coercion.

Dr. Ketaki DattaAuthor’s Bio:  Dr. Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English, Bidhannagar College, Kolkata. She is a novelist, short story writer, critic and a translator. Her debut novel “A Bird Alone” has won rave reviews in India and abroad.  She had been to Lisbon on an invitation from IFTR [Ireland chapter] to read out a paper titled “Human Values and Modern Bengali Drama”, which got published in the Festival Issue of The Statesman in India.  Her second novel “One Year for  Mourning”[2014] has won critical reviews in noted journals here and abroad. “The Last Salute”[translated novel, Sahitya Akademi, N. Delhi,  2013], “ The Voyage” [2009],  “ Across the Blue Horizon”[poetry collection, England, 2014] are a few of her notable publications. Her short story has been published in New Asian Writing Anthology[2013], The Statesman, Contemporary Vibes, Literary Criterion etc. She has also been interviewed by NAW[ New Asian Writing].  Her poems have been published in anthologies published by Brian Wrixon, Canada. She was chosen the “ Professional Woman of the Year” in 2005 by American Biographical Society, North Carolina.

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