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15Unleashed: Mhesvi in a Time of War

Starting around 1963, two black political parties—the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)—turned to armed struggle to demand independence for vatema. From 1966 to 1968, mhesvi efforts in Sebungwe, Binga, Hurungwe, and Guruve had experienced setbacks as ZAPU’s armed wing (later Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, or ZPRA) skirmished with Rhodesian Security Forces. Meanwhile, further east, ZANU’s army, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), carried out operations in Nemakonde, Kadoma, and surrounding areas that culminated in the Battle of Chinhoyi in 1966. These operations were dramatic—for publicity purposes for both the guerrillas and Rhodesia—but were failed first attempts.

But in 1972, ZANLA’s resumption of operations from Portuguese-ruled Mozambique with aid from that country’s national liberation movement, the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), threatened the conduct of tsetse control operations. The insurgents were infiltrating via the Dande tsetse control front, their mobilities also producing “a steadily decreasing ability … to carry out tsetse control measures, … with a concomitant massive increase in the incidence of n’gana.”1

Field operations to administer chemotherapy and drug prophylactics to mombe in the rural countryside were now severely curtailed. Mombe were decimated. BTTC had pushed mhesvi back into Mozambique, beyond the border into Tete Province. Now mhesvi had not only returned but was spreading throughout Chiswiti, Chimanda, and Masoso Tribal Trust Lands. By the end of 1972, it had crossed the Mazowe River south into the Mutoko and Murehwa districts. Here and in Binga, guerrillas foiled repeated attempts to treat mombe; over twelve thousand head died.2

The war of self-liberation paralyzed the entire tsetse control operation on the northeastern border. It was no longer possible to maintain the four hundred to six hundred miles of game and cattle fences without being shot at. The branch acknowledged that “wire and even standards are being stolen in a wholesale manner and … not a single conviction has been obtained.”3 Restrictions of mombe from specific areas to prevent them from “seriously embarrassing control procedure” were no longer possible because of the security situation. There were only two solutions possible: either political settlement or flood the countryside with the Security Forces and thereby protect personnel on tsetse control duties. Only then could the operations resume.4

Hurumende was faced with two kinds of pests, mhesvi and magandanga (“terrorists,” as vachena called them, who were varwi verusununguko, or freedom fighters, to vatema). An internal memo in 1972 is very clear that mhesvi was catching a ride on the “terrorists,” putting fifty percent of Rhodesia’s national herd at risk.5 “Carried fly” caught a ride on the backs of “terrorists,” whose mobilities were too irregular for, and indeed totally disrupted, the cleansing chambers and tsetse gates. The antitsetse operations had relied on the unchallenged access of vachena to means of coercion such as guns. Now the tables had turned: the rural people became very stubborn, their resistance to continued arbitrary tsetse policies increased by the knowledge that freedom fighters were in the bush, their fingers curled around the triggers of AK-47 rifles and bazookas. Vatema’s mood was now anything but submissive:

In the interim the veterinary organization would be called upon to attempt by chemotherapy the protection of large numbers of cattle, an operation regrettably not based upon so firm a foundation as previously. Freedom of choice will be the popular order of the day and suggestions of coercion will at least at first be frowned upon because unpopular as such measures inevitably are, they might be turned to good account by unscrupulous opportunists. … In the past the considerable success we have enjoyed in controlling trypanosomiasis and its vector has been due in no small degree to our ability to enforce the appropriate regulations framed specifically for those purposes but often unpopular and seldom completely understood. … It is now suggested that this will, at least at first, no longer be possible and some compromise solution must be sought without delay. In the past there have been instances where the stock owners have been allowed to refuse treatment in the belief that the ensuing deaths would convince the owners of the correctness of the official policy. In nearly every case this has proved a singularly potent weapon and it promises to be even more important in the future.6

The arbitrariness that had accounted for the success of the prophylactic settlement and inoculation campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s was gone. The tone had changed. (The glossary at the back of the book will aid the reader in understanding chidzimbahwe registers of this change.)

Places Rendered Inaccessible by War

The BTTC memo quoted previously illustrates clearly how war (mobilities of freedom fighters) rendered the borderlands inaccessible and virtually opened the floodgates to the mobilities of mhesvi. The freedom fighter and mhesvi—what a pestiferous combination of mobile workshops!—were both terrorists in the eyes of hurumende. The freedom fighters used guns, landmines, and mortar tubes, firing bullets, killing through detonations and bombs. Mhesvi used its long mouth, depositing hutachiwana and death in the herds. Both terrorized hurumende and vachena with their mobilities. The terrorist was a freedom fighter, fighting for freedom from Rhodesian rule. Mhesvi was exercising its freedom to move where it pleased. We have heard this story of zvipukanana and insurgents (i.e., problem vanhu or mhuka) before from Hugh Raffles (2010), but here we are talking about hwiza (locusts) and freedom fighters terrorizing hurumende yevadzvanyiriri. Not separately—together!

It was not just a matter of mhesvi originating from and because of the existence of a conflict zone. ZANLA and ZPRA freedom fighters were waging war from mhesvi-infested terrain that Rhodesia’s mounted unit, the Grey Scouts, infamous for its tracking in roadless terrain, could not reach. The freedom fighters had mined the roads, and ndege was always fair game for SAM-7 (Strela) missiles, antiaircraft guns, bazookas, and, for choppers flying just above treetop cover, AK-47s aimed at pilots. That included places like Sebungwe, Binga, Hurungwe, Guruve, Rushinga, and later Nyanga and the Chipinge to Savé-Runde junction stretch, where battles had raged for over half a century between the chipukanana insurgent and hurumende yevadzvanyiriri. In the Rushinga area, for example, ZANLA attacked just when Rhodesia’s Vet Department was finalizing plans for a major spraying campaign in the Rio Luia (Ruya), “the stronghold of the persistence of tsetse in that area.” It had “put in tracks, arranged camps and had the full permission of the Portuguese,” but military considerations forced the cancellation of the mission (“Tsetse Fly the Winner in Terror War” 1977).

The tsetse control situation ebbed and flowed with the plateaus and valleys of war. After the commotion of 1972 involving ZANLA infiltrations into Rushinga, political talks began. Détente followed. The guns fell silent, freedom fighter mobilities vanished, the tsetse control teams returned, and mhesvi was on the retreat. In 1974, Assistant Director Desmond Lovemore declared the situation “very satisfactory,” barring areas along the international border between the Ruya and Mazowe rivers, where fear of attack from inside Mozambique kept the tsetse control teams away. In areas in which no “terrorists” were active, residual spraying and selective game elimination continued, the inoculations with ethidium, berenil, and samorin resumed, and the pneumatic sprayers dumped DDT over six thousand square miles of mhesvi habitat.7

Détente delivered a crippling blow to ZANLA and ZPRA. Only in 1976 did serious missions from Mozambique and Zambia resume. Mozambique had become independent in 1975, and the new FRELIMO government of Samora Machel wasted no time in inviting the new unified ZANLA-ZIPRA army, now named the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA), to establish staging bases inside Mozambique along the entire eastern border with Rhodesia. The unity was short-lived; as ZANLA consolidated its operations from Mozambique, ZPRA continued infiltrating from Zambia through the entire frontage of Rhodesia’s Zambezi River boundary. ZPRA’s campaigns into Lupane, Gwaai, Shangani, Binga, and Guruve, and ZANLA’s into Rushinga, Mutoko, northern Nyanga, and south into Honde and Savé-Runde, were (barring a few) conducted through mhesvi country.

The war took place in exactly the areas infested by or recently cleared of mpukane. ZPRA freedom fighters operated from Zambia and its gopé-prone Zambezi and Luangwa valleys, from Sebungwe (intermittently) to Guruve, and ZANLA from Dande to eastern Nyanga and from Chipinge to the Savé-Runde river junction. Fortunately, the freedom fighter experience with mhesvi—especially its excruciating bite—is beginning to be told (“Jane Ndlovu” 2015). ZPRA crossing points passed through thick mpukane country astride the Zambezi on either side of the Kariba Dam—that is, between Kazungula and Victoria Falls (into Hwange), Batoka and Victoria Falls (into Lupane, Nkayi, and Binga), and from the Kariba Dam to Chirundu (into Hurungwe, Binga-Kariba, and Gokwe). These were the areas where prophylactic settlement of Gwai, Shangani, Gokwe, and Hurungwe had generated immense ill feeling against the settler government.

In the last half of Mugabe’s ill-fated personalized rule, state propaganda took pains to emphasize how top politicians were “stung by mosquitoes, tsetse flies, spiders, dangerous snakes and other harmful bugs” to show their own sacrifices at the expense of the two constituents that really fought the war: the freedom fighter and the povo (the masses) inside the war zone (Mhombera 2012; Bwititi 2015). The anthrohistorian David Lan’s account of Dande, scene of ZANLA’s highly effective covert infiltration starting in 1970, has shown that, because of mhesvi (and mhuka) presence, the area had no mombe; any that were brought in died within months. All cultivation was undertaken chibhakera (by hand), not with plows (Lan 1985). These material conditions forced ZANLA to rely on head porterage and the mhesvi-resistant donkey to move ammunition and supplies from their Mozambican rear bases and cache them in local forests and hills. The routes to and from the ZANLA training bases in Chimoio (Praça Adriano), Nyadzonia, and Tembwe passed through the mhesvi-infested stretches in northern Nyanga, Mudzi, Mutoko, Dande, and Muzarabani.

Whereas the mhesvi advance created serious veterinary risks for mombe, with vatema being resettled as human shields to make the land impassable and unlivable to mhesvi the freedom fighter incursions turned this entire philosophy on its head. The prophylactic against pests had become, through political mobilization, the water in which the fish (freedom fighters) now swam; resettled people became a logistic- and intelligence-support infrastructure for a successful war of self-liberation. In an interview in 1978, Robert Mugabe, leader of ZANU, the parent party of ZANLA, described this reversed role of vatema from prophylactics against mhesvi into the rock upon which to build a strong push for independence:

You must rely on the people above all. Without them, the use of arms is of no value … win a base in the heart of the people and later operate out of the people, with the people, against the enemy. … It is not enough to talk about destroying the enemy, transforming certain zones into areas that are safe for the people. The people have to be organized into bases of support for their own struggle, so that it will be the people themselves that will continue the struggle. … The role of the guerrilla is to act as a vanguard, to guide the revolution. This is why what must come first after the building of support is the establishment of administrative structures for the people. The people have to govern themselves. They must create the conditions for survival based on their own resources through the developments of projects in agriculture, education, and health. (Mugabe 1978, 28)

Mhesvi struck its covenant with mhuka; the freedom fighters struck theirs with the people. Through their bite, mhesvi had protected mhuka by limiting the mobilities of vanhu riding on horseback or ox-wagons; now the freedom fighter protected the people by lining roads with landmines and harassing fire, thereby denying the enemy of the people freedom of movement. It was not altogether benevolent; the sole reason for mhesvi’s proximity to nyati the buffalo and other big game was to feed upon their blood. By contrast, the freedom fighter was very much interested in the people as logistic support. To the degree that both were so reliant on their hosts, mhuka and vatema, their risks could be eliminated using similar methods: starving them by eliminating their “hosts,”’ creating buffer zones between them and their hosts, and, if it came to it, chemical warfare to destroy them en masse.

Mugabe was talking about more than just sucking blood out of the people to gain the energy necessary to attack and conquer hurumende yevadzvanyiriri. He was saying that freedom fighters must build the capacity to enable the people to establish an administration parallel to hurumende yevadzvanyiriri, not within the space that hurumende yevadzvanyiriri still governed but that was now a liberated zone—in other words, rolling away the carpet that was Rhodesia and spreading over it the carpet that was the new Zimbabwe. Then, like a mhesvi catching a ride on game—like carried fly— the freedom fighters and the nationalists would ride to power, to take over hurumende and insert Zimbabwe while deleting Rhodesia as a geophysical expression:

From the rural zones we can now expand into the urban zones that are the strong points of the regime. They have many military bases in the highlands where the cities are located and where the main railroads, roads, and other lines of communication are. Our next stage will be to surround the enemy in those areas. As we advance out of the rural zones, the people will have a very important role to play. The war turns into a people’s war with the people struggling, placing the mines and attacking the enemy. Our army will attack the most difficult targets and the people the easier ones. (Mugabe 1978, 28)

Rhodesia’s mhesvi operations had been so successful not only because hurumende had a monopoly over the means of violence, but also because people in the borderlands had lent their ruzivo and labor to hurumende’s projects to extract some form of livelihood. The extension of age-old hunyanzvi hwekuvhima or huhombarume (hunting expertise) and practices to hugocha is a perfect example of this. Those days were now gone. In Chibwedziva, for example, seasoned hunters abandoned their misha in fear of hurumende’s retribution against vanhu for supporting “terrorists” and extended their skills to hunting for the freedom fighters with a new kind of weapon: the Soviet-made SKS rifle. Many became the eyes and ears of the freedom fighters.8 As Mugabe said in 1978, most of the mhesvi-infested border areas had been lost to the freedom fighters, who now declared them liberated zones.

The situation as viewed from the capital, Salisbury, was dire. On March 3, 1977, Chief Veterinary Officer (Trypanosomiasis) Bill Boyt told the Rhodesia Herald (see figure 15.1) that the war had “put back Rhodesia’s battle against the tsetse fly 20 years.” The situation had become “very serious” as mhesvi advanced “at a rate of knots.” In the northeast, mhesvi had reached Bindura and Shamva and was strongly anchored in Mutoko. In the southern areas, it had reached as far inland as Buhera, Gutu, and Bikita, spread no doubt by freedom fighters deploying into combat. Further east and southeast, the scenario already seen in the north was becoming inevitable by the day. Boyt was a very dejected man:


Figure 15.1 Linking mhesvi and magandanga.

Source: Rhodesia Herald, March 3, 1977.

East of the Sabi and south of Chipinga (sic, Chipinge) in the Lowveld we pushed the tsetse back into Mozambique, we eliminated them from Rhodesia, and we worked about nine or 10 km into Mozambique. Now this facility has been denied to us. The cattle in that area could be infected. … It could cross the Sabi flood plain, it could cross the Sabi and could be in areas like the [Sangwe] Reserve, Ndanga and so on. … And further south, in Gona-re-Zhou, we have had a very successful campaign in conjunction with the Portuguese in Mozambique and the South African authorities from 1963 to 1974. We pushed the tsetse completely out of Rhodesia and we were working 80 km into Mozambique. … Had we been allowed to carry on we would now be within smell of the sea. And that would be the problem removed from that area. The threat to the Limpopo and Kruger National Park would have been removed. (“Tsetse Fly the Winner in Terror War” 1977)

To say that Boyt’s interview illustrates the curtailment of the freedom of mobility on which the tsetse control operation had relied is to understate the role of mobility in denying mhesvi freedom of movement. When the hunters, bush-clearing teams, spraying “spans,”’ zvikopokopo, and light ndege had enjoyed freedom of movement, mhesvi was on the run—or had nowhere to run. Now that freedom was gone and mhesvi was advancing, especially as carried fly, on the backs of freedom fighters infiltrating through hitherto restricted spaces, sometimes driving mombe through minefields to breach them, as well as on special and ordinary forces returning from “hot pursuit” operations in neighboring Mozambique, now an independent country and the rear base of ZANLA.

The entire infrastructure—“the intelligence system of tsetse,” game elimination, and prophylactic settlement—was coming apart. Vatema were no longer anybody’s human shields or machines—nor their mombe:

Now, we haven’t even got any sentinel herds along the border. These were herds we kept as alarm systems to check the presence of fly and of the trypanosome parasite. So the first intimation we would have for the return of tsetse would be infection of cattle in Matibi No. 2 Tribal Trust Land, north of Gona-re-Zhou Game Reserve. … Because we can’t work along the border for security reasons, we can’t even monitor the tsetse in that area. The whole of Gona-re-Zhou is closed to everyone except the security forces. From Mount Darwin [Dande] down to Vila Salazar [Sango] very little work could be done. … A quite serious position might develop anywhere, or everywhere, along that border.9

It was a sign of the times that District Commissioner (Gokwe) P. G. Dix wrote a letter to the senior tsetse field officer expressing utter helplessness in the face of collapsing mombe-mhesvi boundaries in Gokwe, now a ZPRA war zone, in 1978. He was calling for an exercise to be “mounted to restore some discipline in the matter,” stressing he could no longer “continue ‘fobbing off’ people.” In the angry letter, Dix makes clear the pressure building from below and exposes the effects the ban on cattle-keeping in reclaimed lands had on people whose livelihood was based on farming:

I am continually receiving requests to be allowed livestock in the Huchu and Masuka Areas. … The people now point out that no control is maintained; and why should the people who flout the law be “allowed” livestock and those law-abiding citizens have to “plough” with badzas. If control is to be relaxed then all should be allowed animals. If control is to be maintained then no animals should be allowed. The present situation is to say the least embarrassing as no action is taken against the offenders. … Headman Nembudzia also asks if he may be allowed cattle as he says he is “surrounded” by cattle.10

Boyt found Dix’s letter to be “unreal” but clearly reflecting “the feelings, frustrations and difficulties” the sort of which, he said, starts with “a couple of obvious truths, passes through a phase of tub thumping and ends on a plaintive note” while failing to “admit the truth”: that the government was powerless to enforce n’gana regulations and the disorderly mobility of mombe was “inevitable.” Dix’s was “a masterpiece of rhetoric echoing the vain hopes of all those who yearn for the return of order and discipline, factors which can no longer be imposed other than by the people themselves. … Self-discipline is a rare virtue arising only as a result of privation and necessity.”11 Still, Dix’s letter highlighted the need for “a major change of policy demanded by a changed and changing political situation.” Boyt recommended a review of policy governing restrictions upon zvipfuyo in “tribal areas,” because the legislation was unenforceable in any case and the deployment of staff hampered by the risks to their own lives at the hands of the freedom fighters.12

Rhodesia’s tsetse control strategy was coming apart. The mobilities of the freedom fighters with AK-47s and bazookas in hand were cutting off the ability of hurumende to put a finger on the pulse of mhesvi. The freedom fighters were establishing a militaristic order in the countryside and blasting their way to Salisbury. Mhesvi was no longer in the hands of the Rhodesian state. By April 1980, even Rhodesia was no longer on the map. In place of the green and white flag, the green, yellow, red, and black, with the hungwe (shiri yedzimbahwe/Zimbabwe bird) occupying a red star perch on a white scalene triangle, was flying high over the land.

After seven decades of battling mhesvi, vachena were utterly helpless as the little chipukanana not only returned to its old haunts, but broke new ground. Therefore, the Rhodesians dumped the chemicals instead on the cause of their failure: the nationalist freedom fighters. The extension of weapons intended for animal pests to human pests of hurumende occurred exactly at the time (from 1974 on) that spraying and other operations against mhesvi became impossible to execute. The excess ordnance had found a new use: as a force multiplier to attenuate the superiority that rapid mobility on foot through roadless terrain gave ZPRA and ZANLA freedom fighters. That story awaits its own monograph.

The New Cordons Sanitaires

As I was about to close this book out, I came across a quite informative article from one Rhodesian combat veteran, Mark Craig, paying homage to the “fly men” and their role in the Rhodesian Security Forces’ strategy of attenuating the “terrorists’” numerical strength through the construction of cordons sanitaires. The article explored, among other things, the Rhodesian use of mechanical and chemical defoliation in both cordons and non-cordons sanitaire operations. After briefly outlining the US military’s use of Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green, Blue, and Orange in Vietnam in an operation codenamed Ranch Hand, as well as British use of Agent Orange in Malaya, Craig then turns to Rhodesia’s “apparently not squeaky clean” war.

Craig’s account is unusually self-reflexive, which is a rarity among Rhodesian war writers nostalgic about their ninety-year “moment” in the country’s history. He acknowledges that very little is known on the topic, that “no objective evidence … shows what if any residual effect there was on the local population and indeed our own troops. Perhaps this is an aspect that no one wants to talk about or perhaps it was just one of those activities no one knows much about.”13 His account is also quite well researched; where he cannot find actual operational orders and debriefs of specific infrastructural assignments, he has deferred to a vibrant Rhodesian online community of ex-soldiers that have kept in touch, often reconstituting the entire chain of command involved in these covert operations.

From his own research and based on his war experience, Craig first confirms that in the intensive phase of the war (1976–1979), the BTTC was an integral part of Rhodesia’s chemical warfare project. The branch’s personnel could be found, for example, carrying “back-pack hand-operated sprayers containing HIVAR-X,” a wettable powder herbicide mixed in water and applied to destroy brush. However, the chepfu proved very expensive to use for the envisaged expansion of vegetation-free spaces along cordon fences from 25 to 150 meters wide. The switch was made to TORDON 225—“a costly mistake as this product was ineffective and resulted in Rhodesia instituting court action against the South African manufacturers.”14 The chemical defoliants were apparently deployed to clear cordon frontage on the Musengezi, Mukumbura, and Nyamapanda to Ruenya minefield.

Rhodesia’s Army Corps of Engineers provided mabhurudhoza and graders for the mechanical clearing of all vegetation on areas demarcated for the cordons sanitaires, and BTTC installed the fence. The branch also did the defoliating—for example, on Chete Island on Lake Kariba, where they sprayed HIVAR-X as one would fertilizer, along the banks. Says Terry Griffin, the officer in charge of the operation on the ground: “This would (as it did) clear that sector of all foliage and thereby (hopefully) deny natural cover. After the first rains it was evident all was dying off and it did clear all fairly quickly creating a rather bare scar along that section of the island. Some 10 years later it was still very visible but on my last fishing trip there +/– 4 years ago all had now regrown.”15

The tsetse personnel and army engineers worked together on fence construction or maintenance on the North Eastern Border Game Fence (NEBGF) in Mukumbura. The former group handled the construction and maintenance work on fences on both the “home” and “enemy” sides of the minefield. The personnel were usually composed of the TFO and numerous mafrayi under him. Without them erecting fences further ahead, the sappers could not lay any mines. Keeping the fly men within the “protective boundary” was critical lest they move too far off, become isolated, and be captured or killed by the “terrorists”—which occasionally happened. They would be severely outgunned; only the TFO was armed with a Fabrique Nationale (FN) rifle.16

How did we move from tsetse game fences to cordons sanitaires against freedom fighters? Here again, Craig’s account is important as a primary source: “The main idea of the fences being constructed by the Tsetse Fly crews was to stop the migration of host animals from one area to the next. It was quite a clever idea to use these fences as minefield perimeters as well.”17 As varungu, TFOs had the power to shoot mhuka for the pot, which made them popular with soldiers fed up with corned beef and other rations. After all, they camped together, at the very same tsetse camps we discussed throughout the book. Only this time, their Land Rovers were no longer soft-skinned, but retrofitted with mine-resistant armor plate. We may not like it that defoliants and Land Rovers were extended to kill black people fighting for the right to be free in their own land.

However, what we cannot do is ignore that innovation, even though it was intended for purposes we may see as evil. A significant body of literature addresses Rhodesia’s use of chemical and biological weapons (CBWs), with vatema as victims. Writing on science, technology, and innovation is very scarce, and where it exists in R&D and academic form, it focuses on Rhodesian CBWs and the renovation and innovation of military vehicles (Nass 1992, 1992–1993; Lawrence, Foggin, and Norval 1980; Sterne 1967). Craig’s reconstruction of the tsetse men’s participation in the counterinsurgency operations is a small slice of ex-Rhodesian military personnel and their biographers beginning to publish texts about their wartime technological innovations, including the retrofitting of light-skinned vehicles into landmine-proof troop carrier vehicles (see also Lester 1996; Wood 2005). Other countries have looked past the moral repugnance of these regimes and have long since noticed this innovative, very applied and pragmatic past; by contrast, Zimbabwe has looked past the innovation and seen only the evil deeds of the downpressor.

Some examples: A decade after the war ended in 1980, the US Army commissioned the RAND Corporation to undertake a study into the valuable lessons to be learned from the Rhodesian counterinsurgency experience (Hoffman, Taw, and Arnold 1991). In 1994, Australia’s Department of Defense began plans to refurbish its fleet of armored vehicles. It subsequently commissioned a study of Rhodesian innovations in the protection of light-skinned vehicles against landmines. It is hard to imagine that the US counterinsurgency strategy since the 1990s and Australia’s turn to the Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle after the year 2000 did not benefit from these lessons (ACIL Tasman 2009).

Those things we do not see as important, others see their value. They come, study them carefully, take them, and make money with them.


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