Human Rights, Rwanda 2012

A group of 20 SMU students, faculty and staff are in Rwanda in August 2012 with SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program. After the African country’s 1994 civil war, in which as many as a million people were killed in 100 days, “history lives on,” says group leader and program director Rick Halperin. The SMU group are helping in the healing process by sharing donated books and classroom and medical supplies with schools and orphanages. They also are visiting genocide sites and meeting with survivors.

Struggling to understand: Rwanda 2012

SMU Embrey Human Rights students, staff and faculty at Urukundo Village and Learning Center

An update from Dr. Vicki L. Hill, Assistant Dean for the University Curriculum:

I’m going to be struggling with what I learned and thought about in Rwanda for a long, long time. I saw what I hope is the most horrible thing I will ever see in my entire life, and I experienced moments of pure joy and affirmation.

History’s most efficient genocide occurred just over 18 years ago, with as many as 1 million people systematically murdered in less than 100 days.  Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, says starkly and simply: “Every adult with whom we interact in Rwanda is either a survivor, a perpetrator, or an enabler.” The ongoing project of reconciliation, of reuniting the country and moving forward feels very inspiring, but equally fragile, especially with the ever-present, heavily armed military standing alert on every corner and down every alley. Our driver explains, “Some countries call in the Army when there’s a problem. Ours is always here so there aren’t any problems.”

By government design, there is a genocide memorial in every sector of the country, insistent reminders that genocide happened here, and here, and here.

As with the Holocaust, Rwanda has its genocide deniers; it didn’t happen, or it happened but the numbers were much smaller than you have been told, or the one unique to this atrocity: there were two genocides.

Many of these memorials are the actual sites of mass murders, schools and more often churches where thousands and thousands of desperate, terrified Tutsis were promised sanctuary and safety. The memorials convey their final hours.  We see bullet holes in ceilings, doors forced open by grenades, and walls darkened by the residue of bloodstains.

In the huge sanctuary at Nyamata, the pews — row after row of them — are piled high with the clothing the victims were wearing at the time of their death.

In Ntarama, there is a wall with the names of only 260 of the more than 10,000 who died here.  The names of the others may be lost forever because no one survived to remember them.

On top of the coffins at Kamonyi are approximately 100 pictures representing a few of the more than 4,500 people murdered in this region.  Our guide shows us a picture of her husband, as well as those of her neighbors. She works here to be near them.  At least she knows where those whom she loved died. Many survivors do not have even that small comfort, since knowing depends upon the killers being willing to tell the truth — whom they killed, where they killed them, and how they disposed of the bodies.  We learn of perpetrators killing survivors so that they do not have to confess to all of their crimes. If no one survives to denounce you, you can omit that part of your story.

We learn that every April during the time of Remembrance, the survivors gather, share names and memories, and try to piece together what may have happened to family members. Telling others what happened is essential. Many of us listen to our driver, J.D., recount the harrowing story of his own survival: he hid for a few days in the forest near what had been his home and then for many weeks in the dank water of the marshes, where the dogs are unable to trace human scent, emerging each night only after the roving bands of Interahamwe militia have gone home, and surviving on raw sweet potatoes and brackish water.  “To speak, to tell my story,” J.D. says, “is to fight the trauma.” The trauma is an expression that I hear more and more often.

In most of these genocide memorials, we see the dead themselves, room after room of skulls, hipbones, and femurs, many bearing the mutilating marks of deadly machetes. On our second day in Kigali, we visit with a representative from the CNLG (National Commission Against Genocide) because we seek permission to photograph the human remains that are so prominently displayed.  This man — who lost his mother, his father, two sisters, and two brothers in the genocide — asks us, “Why should you take pictures of my dead father’s bones?”

Most in our group are teachers and students of Human Rights; they will use these photos in their classes and in their work.  I debate with myself whether to take any pictures, and at first I am sure that I will not. Finally, however, I decide it would be dishonest to take pictures only of beautiful landscapes, or mothers with babies strapped to their backs, or people walking up and down incredibly steep hills balancing what seem to be entire households on their heads.

The most horrible pictures are from Murambi, site of a secondary school perched on a hill overlooking a lush, verdant valley.  On April 21, 1994, some 40,000 were murdered here, their bodies tossed into huge open pit graves and doused with lime in an attempt to cover up the atrocity.  Only days later, French soldiers will play volleyball on this very site, the French having arrived not to save the Tutsis but to assist the Hutu, whom they had trained and armed in the first place. In Murambi we walk past room after room filled with the preserved skeletons of hundreds and hundreds of those who were murdered here. Their twisted shapes speak to the agonies of their final minutes. In one room my eyes are riveted to a corpse with a single upstretched arm; in another, a small child.

Vicki Hill with Peter and Felix at Les Enfants de Dieu

But my memories would be incomplete without mention of places of incredible hope and affirmation.  I smile when I look at a picture of myself with Peter and Felix, the two boys who were my enthusiastic and talkative guides at Les Enfants de Dieu, home to hundreds of Kigali’s street children.  I am so grateful to the many Dallas friends who contributed some of the books and school supplies that we were able to donate to Mama Arlene’s amazing Urukundo Village and Learning Center. And I’m glad I spent more money than I intended purchasing baskets and jewelry from the women learning crafts and achieving economic self-sufficiency through the fine work being done both at Women for Women and at Gahaya Gifted Hands, where we learn the story of a Hutu woman who, after working beside Tutsi women who survived the genocide, asks for forgiveness on behalf of her husband.

Perhaps the experience that best reflects my nine days in Rwanda is our visit to the Nelson Mandela settlement, home to some 75 women, most of them HIV positive, who were raped by the same Interahamwe who murdered their husbands and children. Through interpreters, we hear their stories, we gasp as one holds up what remains of her machete-chopped arm, and we cry as they speak of losing their faith, everything they knew and everyone they loved destroyed. And they ask us questions that we try to answer, and soon almost everyone is crying, they on their side of the room and we on ours. Then, finally, we are all standing, intermingling, hugging each other, and these strong women in halting French are telling me not to cry.  We take lots and lots of pictures. Smiles are more plentiful than tears. Afterward, driving away, I confess to Amon, our guide, that I worry our presence may have added to their pain, and he says to me, “Oh no, Vicki, not at all. You brought them joy.  Now people will know they are here.”

There is no such thing as a lesser person.

Now people will know they are here.

The women of the Nelson Mandela settlement

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A painful history and opportunity for a better future

Our group in Rwanda

An update from Roza, a senior majoring in communication studies and political science:

On August 3, 2012, I embarked on one of the most unforgettable journeys of my lifetime when I got on a plane with a group of SMU students and faculty to travel to Rwanda. I walked away learning so much about Rwanda’s history after spending an incredible 10 days in one of Africa’s most developed countries.

I decided to go to Rwanda because traveling on one of the Embrey Human Rights trips has always been one of my goals. Luckily, my proposal to conduct an Unbridled Project in Rwanda was approved through the Engaged Learning office, so I was simultaneously conducting research. The following blog posts you are about to read represent only the highlights of what happened during our trip. Due to inconsistent Internet access, I could not blog daily, but I will be sure to summarize the highlights.

Beautiful Rwanda

The view from the Urukundo Home for Children

First impression of Rwanda: what a gorgeous country. Many of us on the trip could not stop talking about its beauty. This mountainous country contains vegetation of every kind – unique plants and trees that we in America see only seasonally. No matter how many pictures I snapped, none of them does justice to the beauty packed into one of the smallest countries in the world.

Many times I would stop and think, I wonder whether Rwandans know how beautiful their country is or whether they take it for granted. When your eyes have been exposed to flat land and minimal green for most of your life, you cannot help but stare in amazement at the landscape, and that is what I did the entire time.  If there is one thing the 20 of us on the trip unanimously agreed upon, it was the beauty of this country, hands down.  I am so grateful my eyes were exposed to a part of the world I probably would never have seen without the financial assistance of my Unbridled Project grant and my Embrey Human Rights scholarship.

The Children

It is one thing to go on about the beauty of the country, but I cannot blog about my experience without mentioning the people. After all, I doubt anyone can fully enjoy their experience if they encountered a beautiful country with unpleasant people. I am happy to report that was nowhere near our experience. Rwandans are some of the most hospitable and heartwarming people you will ever meet; for the most part, my experience has shown me that this is true of almost all Africans.

Of all the people in Rwanda, the youth are my favorite to talk about! At first my eyes were primarily fixated on the landscape and agriculture of the country. I kept admiring the endless banana trees and the acres and acres of rice and corn that women were harvesting at dawn. But after about a day or two, I looked most forward to the children’s company, and I will dearly miss them.

It is probably accurate to say that another consensus our group came to is how absolutely adorable the children are. We all fell in love with them, and some members of our group even stayed in Rwanda to volunteer at Urukundo Home for Children. Wherever we went, the kids had their hands ready to wave while cracking big smiles. When we stopped at a site and got out of our jeeps, all of the children around the area would come running to us. And despite our inability to communicate with them and vice versa, there still existed this sense of understanding that transcends cultural and language barriers.

Apart from how adorable, joyful and loving the children are, I think one of the main reasons I fell in love with the children and am unable to stop talking or thinking about them is because of what they represent. As cliché as this sounds, these children are the future of this country. In many countries that have not experienced genocide, this may not mean much, but for Rwanda in some ways this means everything.

When I look into the eyes of the children, I no longer see the past — overcome with so much bloodshed, hate and ethnic division. Instead, I see the new history Rwanda has the opportunity to write – a vibrant story of love, unity and peace. This gets me so excited even just thinking about it, because there is an urgent need and desire for Rwandans and the international community to rewrite the country’s shameful history.

Just in the few days I was there, I was able to witness the type of healing that children can offer. On this trip it was inevitable that we experienced serious emotions because we were exposed to burial sites and genocide memorials. However, whenever I was blessed with the opportunity to see the children’s beautiful faces or interact with them, I felt deep emotions. I could be in a state of sadness or deep contemplation after visiting a genocide memorial site, but immediately those emotions shifted when I saw the children.

I don’t say this to lessen the weight of the burial sites and genocide memorials because the history of genocide is one that ought not be forgotten and one that I know I will never forget. But I say this to say that when I look in the faces of these innocent children, I am given a new lens to see Rwanda and its future. The children are the joy and hope that is in store for the present and future of the country. I can only hope and pray that Rwandans will come together and demand a better future for the sake of their children.

Genocide Memorial Sites

Although visiting the memorial sites and burials was not easy, I am very thankful I did. We visited the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, where over 45,000 Tutsi – including children and infants – were murdered. What was advertised as a safe haven for Tutsis is now a mass grave preserving thousands of skeletons and mummified bodies of those murdered.

Each memorial was more disturbing than the next. At Nyamata Memorial Site, more than 45,000 victims are buried. In this particular region the Tutsi were told to hide in churches, and in a matter of two days, thousands of them were massacred.

As a believer, I found places like Nyamata very disturbing because the last thing I want to learn is how churches were used to carry out genocide. I can only imagine the thousands of families fleeing to the churches fully convinced they would be safe in the sanctuary only to have their bodies mutilated in a matter of seconds in their nice clothes and with their children, families and friends. Each site had its own story of horror and bloodshed, but they all portrayed the same theme – nearly a million innocent victims wiped out of their country, leaving behind only their skeletons and mourning family members. And that is only if they were lucky enough to not have had their bodies burned or dumped in the river, or to have any of their family members survive.

The Nelson Mandela Village

The site that put most of us in tears wasn’t where we saw the dead, but where we visited a room full of women survivors. At the Nelson Mandela Village we heard women who survived the genocide but had been raped. Rape was used in 1994 as a weapon of war to terrorize women and intentionally afflict suffering on them and their future children. Consequently, there are many women who survived the genocide but who carry the burden of AIDS or other diseases. So do most of their children, if they do give birth.

Despite the suffering and constant reminder of the most dehumanizing action performed on them, these women greeted us with so much courage and strength. It really is amazing how a room full of resilient women can change the atmosphere and give hope to hopelessness.

Looking at the faces of these women and thinking about what they have been subjected to both emotionally and physically left me in tears and angry at how unfair the world has been and continues to be toward women. But, by the end of our visit, these women’s strong personalities left all of us in smiles and drying our tears.  When I feel hopeless or angry, I will think of the women from the Nelson Mandela Village because if they can have so much strength and optimism after everything they went through, there is no reason I cannot maintain my hope.

Overall, I had an incredible time in Rwanda and I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to visit a country with such a rich history. I wish a large part of the country’s history wasn’t engulfed with genocide, but as painful and shameful as it is, this history has to be retold. It is important to visit the sites where the bodies of thousands of victims lie, to speak with women from the Nelson Mandela Village and to interact with survivors and the new generation of children. These trips are not only important for our education, but they also pay respect to the victims and allow visitors to acknowledge and honor the survivors.

At the Nelson Mandela Village

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A new perspective and appreciation for life

An update from Laura, a senior human rights major:

Water pressure! After getting home from the airport yesterday and taking a much-anticipated shower, I noticed how nice it is to have good water pressure. This gave me the opportunity for the “ah-ha” moment from my trip to Rwanda with the Embrey Human Rights Program. I began to think about all of the things that we take for granted every day here in the United States: taking a warm shower, being able to brush your teeth with tap water, a good Internet connection, breathing clean air, an education, health care, safety and the crux of the list: life.

As college students with bright futures, we don’t think about our days as being limited. Oftentimes we get the invincible feeling. Tutsi students our age in Rwanda may have had that feeling in 1994 until their own Hutu neighbors began hunting them to their deaths. Tutsis flocked to churches, following instructions from church and community leaders. Who would kill someone in a church? Many of the memorial sites we visited were churches where Tutsis sought shelter. Their killers had no consideration for the significance of the church, and they murdered men, women, and children in incredibly violent ways.

Driving back from Butare on Friday morning, our driver JD began showing us his experience of the genocide. JD was 15 when the genocide occurred. He showed us the ruins of his teacher’s house and the jungle where he spent a week hiding and protecting his sister. JD lost 7 family members in the 1994 genocide. We had spent the week talking and learning about the genocide with JD. Hearing his personal account of the genocide caused me to respect and admire his courage and the courage of all of the survivors we met this past week.

I will be starting this semester with a new perspective. Life is fragile, and every day is a gift. When classes get tough, I cannot complain. I get to attend a university. The smiles of the children and love I felt from them during our interactions will remind me that happiness can be found in the simplicity of a hug, high-five or playing soccer with an empty water bottle. Thinking about the courage and bravery of the genocide survivors will help me persevere through difficult times in my life. My trip to Rwanda taught me more than just information about the genocide. It taught me important life lessons and changed me. There is no such thing as a lesser person.

Michelle (right) and I in our “Africa pants” on campus, on our way back from D/FW Airport.

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A place like no other: Murambi’s genocide memorial

An update from Michelle, a sophomore majoring in human rights and anthropology:

Some thoughts as we go into the end of the trip…

Everything about our trip to Rwanda has been more eye-opening than I could have ever imagined. Simply reading about it was shocking, but no words can describe actually being here and seeing the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. The more I learn about human rights, the more it seems as if there is no end to what humanity can do, both to and for one another.

One thing our entire group has mentioned is how the genocide has affected virtually every single person in Rwanda, in some way or another. The more we interacted with the people around us – including our amazing drivers, memorial guides, hotel employees, organizations we have visited, and just people on the street – the more the reality of this hit us; everyone had a story. This made every person with whom we interacted into another piece of the puzzle that we are all simply trying to put together.

No matter how much I learn, I will never understand the genocide; I don’t think any rational person could. Although most of our travel group refers to it as happening “only” 18 years ago, to me, that seems like a lifetime ago, well, because it was. I was 6 months old when the genocide started. In terms of the recovery of an entire country, though, these 18 years will be just one moment in its long journey of rebuilding. That is what is so hard to even comprehend because that has been my entire life. Maybe that makes it even more shocking to me; not “just” 18 years, but a whole 18 years later, and everything about the country is still so dictated by what happened.

What affected me most on this trip was our visit to the genocide memorial site at Murambi while in Butare. At this point, we had seen multiple genocide sites, all of which were sobering, to put it extremely lightly. In comparison to these, Murambi is beyond explanation. No matter how mentally prepared I could have been, it wouldn’t have been enough. About 50,000 Tutsis died at this site, which used to be a school. Now, instead of classrooms, they hold bodies preserved in lime.

It is one thing to see a mass grave and be told there are 18,000 people in it, which we also saw there. It was another to go into room after room after room, seeing the bodies of people in their state of death. Some still had some hair; some even had clothes.

After the first few rooms, it became hard to even walk over the threshold of the doorway to the next; I had to take a deep breath every time. It is crazy how strong of a physical reaction can come from emotions. I was shaking and at times felt nauseated; not because of the literal sight of the bodies, but the fact that this was something one human could do to another. When I got past the first hallway of rooms, I was relieved for it to be over. The next hallway had the same thing, which I was not expecting, which is when the tears came.

I was at the back of the group at this point; I process things like this better when I am not with other people and only am thinking about my reactions. Behind me was one of our drivers, JD, who had told us earlier that his grandparents and his aunt’s family were from this area and were killed. He offered me a tissue. …I cannot even describe the feeling I had. This man’s family members could be lying as unidentified genocide victims in front of us, and I was the one crying.

I had asked the question earlier in the week of how people could still be here and be reminded of the genocide of their families every day; this was when I finally understood, even though I had heard the answer before. This is where their family is. Seeing JD’s eyes search the bodies and the clothing piles made me understand that staying in Rwanda or the town where you lived or even right next to the genocide memorials is by choice, and that is their way of dealing with what happened.

This was when I began to realize the theme of juxtaposition throughout the trip and the country. The juxtaposition of the survivors’ hope for closure about what happened versus the sadness of the memory was very clear to me watching JD at Murambi. Being inside  the fences of this tragic site and those rooms full of twisted bodies to look out and see the beautiful hillsides of Rwanda was another interesting juxtaposition. This beautiful country does not seem like it could have been host to such evil events.

Walking out of the site may have been the most somber I have seen many of our group. As we left the fences of the memorial, we were met by many children from the town, who had also greeted us as we went in. They were playing and being normal kids, right outside the fences of the Murambi genocide site. I think that may have been the most in-your-face juxtaposition of the trip, at least for me.

We walked out of a place so scarred with the loss of life, a place where many people did not have the chance to walk out, and were met just outside by one of the most joyous forms of life I think there is: kids being kids. That is the one thing that left me with a little bit of hope walking out of one of the most tragic places I will ever see.

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Where gardens still grow

An update from Sarah, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program:

We paid our respects to the victims at Murambi Memorial Center today. I knew what I would see there but did not realize its geographic context. Promise once existed on this hilltop place. A technical secondary school was under construction, when on April 6, 1994, Rwanda was thrown into great turmoil followed by three months of genocide of the Tutsi Rwandans.

The hill is surrounded by higher hills. Terracing marks the landscape all around. Small homes dot the hillsides. Children are singing while they play. No airplanes can be heard, although there is a wind.

Murambi was said to be a place of refuge or safe haven. Local government and religious leaders sent word that the Tutsi would be protected there by the French soldiers. It was a lie. We now know that the French disappeared, the militia surrounded the hilltop, and shooting commensed. Estimates of 40,000+ people were murdered on April 21, 1994.  This is a number that I cannot visualize.

Around this time last year, I had just completed a trek to Machu Picchu. Like Murambi, it is on a mountaintop surrounded by higher mountains with terracing lining the landscape. Beautiful scenery is all around.

As I walked around Murambi – which displays the corpses of victims, to prove the genocide beyond doubt – I mentally escaped and observed the view. The similarities were striking. Gardens of life grow where humankind has carefully cultivated God’s Earth.

Machu Picchu is a place today where a civilization once lived before abandoning its home.

Murambi is a place where one ethnic group tried to exterminate another ethnic group.

… but life surrounds both sites.

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Learning the stories of victims and survivors

An update from Jared, a junior real estate finance major in the Cox School of Business and economics major in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences:

Today was quite an adventure. To start with, I woke up at 2 a.m.; I’m not sure why. Luckily I was able to fall back asleep until around 7 am. I went up to the fourth-floor restaurant with a great view over Kigali to have breakfast, where I met some members of our group. It was an interesting breakfast – I wasn’t sure what a lot of the food was –  but I ended up finding bacon, pineapple, croissants, and doughnuts. An interesting combination, but it was filling.

At 10, we headed for the Kigali Genocide Memorial, about a 10-minute drive from the hotel. I rode in the Land Rover with Sarah and Mary Evelyn. We arrived at the memorial and were met by “guards” at the entrance who checked our bags and waved metal detectors over us.  As in much of Africa, security is just for show and really has no effectiveness. Completely off subject, but it reminds me of a time at the Nairobi airport, when the woman working the metal detector was asleep.

After a short briefing from a woman working at the Genocide Memorial, we were left to tour on our own. They museum had only eight audio guides available, so we didn’t all get one, and we all had to pay $10 to use our cameras in the museum.

The museum was very powerful. It started with just a general history of the genocide, events leading up to it and such. It then proceeded into events that happened during the genocide. I took a lot of pictures of the entire exhibit. A very amazing part was a room with walls and walls of photographs of victims that had been placed there by their families or friends in memoriam of those they had lost in 1994.

What really had an impact on me was a room with skulls and bones of victims. It just amazed me that all of those bones had belonged to people, and that these people had unwillingly lost their lives, most in very gruesome ways. One girl in the group told us that the skulls with a “y” shape were the developing skulls of children. These were children who were innocent and had done nothing wrong. We then went into a room where clothes of victims were hanging.

I continued on upstairs, where there was a general exhibit of genocides around the world. Next was a room called the children’s room, where photos of children hung. Each had a plaque that described their favorite food, activity, best friend, and how they were killed. Just think that these children, some as young as 2 years old, were hacked by machetes or thrown up against walls just because of their ethnic designation.

Next, I went outside where there was a peaceful garden followed by the mass graves. The graves were covered with concrete slabs, each of which said, “Please do not sit or stand on the graves.” There were two levels of mass graves, probably about 10 giant slabs of concrete in total. They all had flowers on them. I didn’t really comprehend how many bodies were in the graves until I went up the stairs and saw a sign that there were approximately 259,000 bodies. I was in shock that there were so many bodies crammed in such a small place. But these people at least had been buried; there are many Rwandans all over the country who were not properly put to rest.

Halperin told us the story of the girl at the front desk, who had lost many members of her family, including her father and siblings. She had witnessed them being chopped by machetes. She now works at the museum and sends money back to Eastern Rwanda to support her family who are unable to get jobs.

We heard a lecture from an employee at the Memorial, but I won’t go into details because much of what he said was not truthful. Government employees here basically stick to the party line that the nation has healed and that human rights are valued, but that isn’t always the case.

Next we traveled to lunch at a place called Chez Jon. We had good food, I’m not exactly sure what everything was, but I know I had coke, pineapple, some sort of beef, and beans.

On the way to the restaurant, Sara and I were the only ones in our car, and JD, our driver, began to share his story with us. This was really the first moment where I had very strong emotions. JD’s father was killed, along with many of his siblings. He hid in the bush for two months, staying in the water during the day, where the Interahamwe’s dogs could not sniff him out. He said that he would come out during the night to look for food.

I cannot imagine living in a swamp-like area, hiding for my life for two months. It gave me chills to hear his story. It amazes me how open all of the survivors are to tell their stories. I know that it would be difficult for me to tell stories like theirs.

We then left the restaurant and headed to Les Enfants, a rehabilitation center for street boys. This was a very uplifting place. The organization works to rehabilitate boys who come in off the streets looking for a better way of life. They all come in voluntarily; it is their own decision. There are eight “governors” of different ministries who are all children; it was amazing how these children were being empowered.

We had time to hang out with all of the guys, and one in particular, I can’t recall his name for the life of me, hung around me the whole time. He gave me a tour of the entire compound and showed me the rabbits they were raising to sell and make some money. He gave me his email address and wants me to look him up on Facebook. Roza got a group of guys, “Empire State,” to rap for us, which was quite interesting. I took a video of them, so that will be fun to watch later on.

We then came back to the hotel and had a debriefing session of the day’s events, and then went to dinner down by the pool. Some went into town for dinner, but I was way too tired.

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