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From Vol. 3 (2) - Spring 2009

Victimisation of Female Suicide Bombers: The Case of Chechnya

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Nino Kemoklidze is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES), University of Birmingham, UK. Her Ph.D. topic concerns problems of nationalism and ethnic violence in Georgia.

 

Abstract

While arguing about why women fight, many believe that these women are yet other victims in the hands of ruthless men, while others emphasize the seriousness of a particular conflict where even women are driven towards taking up arms, seen as a last resort in the eyes of many. Few, if any, confront this ever present “myth” of victimisation of women who choose radical forms of fighting. This paper will challenge this viewpoint and, based on the case of the so-called Black Widows of Chechnya, will argue that women can take up roles other than that of a victim in the battlefields; and that they are capable of fighting for a purpose other than that of a personal tragedy and/or family bereavement.[1]

Keywords: gender, violence, nationalism, female suicide bombers, Chechnya

“It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about women’s weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement” (Al-Sha’ab (Egypt), February 1, 2002)[2]
 

Introduction

Even though female suicide bombers are a relatively new phenomenon, human history can provide some interesting examples of female combatants fighting and dying alongside men in many wars. However, wars in general “fall under the normative gender categories” and have been traditionally associated with men.[3] Women, on the other hand, have been excluded from the battlefields despite their constant presence in wars. They have mostly been seen in secondary/subordinate roles as nurses and caretakers at the front lines, or in the private/domestic sphere as mothers and wives looking after the children and elderly. Furthermore, more than anything else, women have been portrayed as victims of war and its subsequent violence. 

Thus, it is not surprising that when the first female suicide bomber struck Lebanon in 1985 it came as a shock to the world community.[4] Destruction was a men’s business, how could a petite, weak woman commit such an unthinkable act of violence? In the following decades the world would witness more female suicide attacks in Israel/Palestine, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Chechnya. This emerging trend of female suicide fighters was probably even more surprising due to the fact that the above-mentioned societies are highly patriarchal, therefore, female participation in such death squads shocked the communities which they came from as much as the outside world.[5]

While arguing about why women fight, many believe that these women are yet other victims in the hands of ruthless men while others emphasize the seriousness of a particular conflict in which even women are driven towards taking up arms, seen as a last resort in the eyes of many. Few, if any confront this ever present “myth” of victimisation of women who choose radical forms of fighting.[6] The current paper will challenge this viewpoint and, based on the case of the so-called Black Widows of Chechnya, will argue that women can take up roles other than that of a victim in the battlefields; and that they are capable of fighting for a purpose other than that of a personal tragedy and/or family bereavement.

As Frazier suggests, “in order to understand what propels a woman to engage in violence during war, it is imperative to first understand the complexities of war”[7] as well as the society it is taking place in and the roles women have played in it. Thus, the paper will first give a brief overview of the Chechen society and a woman’s “place” in it. In the second part of the paper, some of the motivations for women to choose to fight will be analysed, alongside the social construction of “womanhood” in mainstream press and media. The portrayal of the Black Widows as mere victims of Russian violence or pure instruments in the hands of their patriarchal societies will be challenged further.

The paper will argue that the victimisation of the female suicide bombers does nothing but reinforce the already existent gender stereotypes. The paper will try to demonstrate that rather than being an essential part of a female nature, the “weak”, “emotional” image of a woman is a socially constructed phenomenon and can have a destructive impact on the further development of gender relations in this region. As Enloe asserts, “the popularity of those phrases is caused in part by ideas about women, by presumptions about femininity and masculinity”.[8] While indeed some women, as well as men, join the fighting out of despair, these motivations should not be taken as gender-fixed. Therefore, in this paper I will argue in favour of recognising Black Widows as agents, not as mere followers. Women can be victims, just like men, but they can be perpetrators equally successfully, and viewing them as simply an instrument is an underestimation of their role as active participants of the war.
 

Background Information: Chechnya and its Society

The first time the world ever heard about Chechnya, this very small part of a very large state, was during the so-called First Russo-Chechen War of 1994-96.[9]  The conflict began upon the collapse of the Soviet Union when Chechnya declared its independence from Russia in 1991, and soon escalated into a full-scale war, followed by the Second Chechen War in 1999-2000. However, the Chechens have been fighting against Russian oppression ever since the Tsarist Empire entered the Caucasus region in the late eighteenth century and have long established an image “of a ‘bone’ that has been lodged in the ‘Kremlin’s throat’”.[10]

The culture and lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of the Caucasus are quite distinct from that of Russia.[11] The Chechen society, in particular, has traditionally been organised around the “tribal allegiances (teipy) stemming from a commonality of clan and territory”.[12] Teipy was a closed circle where groups of people were connected based on a strictly defined patriarchal structure. The “images of the male folk-hero”[13] were inseparable from the teipy culture and their history was mostly “built around tales of bravery” of their men.[14] Marriages within teipy were strictly prohibited and in an “elaborate intertribal marital system” female bodies were largely “commoditised as objects of political exchange”.[15] In other words, women were actively used for economic and/or political “interchange” between different tribes. Later, during the 75-year Soviet rule, the teipy structure of the Chechen society would be undermined but its traditions and the “Muslim customary law, or adat” would continue to have a significant presence in Chechnya up until the present time, especially in rural parts of the country where the majority of the population resides.[16] The tradition of “stealing” a woman to make her one’s wife, or the practice of polygamy in defence of the declining demographic situation, can serve as examples of the unchanged nature of some of the traditional teipy lifestyle.[17]

It is important to note that even during Soviet rule, women continued to be exploited, but in different ways. In the USSR, regions with high birth-rates were rewarded with more employment opportunities and additional economic benefits; thus, women systematically served “as objects of economic gain”.[18] Childbirth remained high even during the thirteen-year deportation period.[19] However, many believe that this was Chechnya’s deliberate nationalist policy aimed against the attempted ethnocide, and that women’s bodies were engaged in enhancing the share of ethnic Chechens. In this way, women were also offering “countless generations of sons” to the fight against Soviet and later Russian rule.[20]

Looking at the above social structure of the Chechen society and the role women played in this hybrid of tribal, Muslim, and Soviet traditions is extremely important in assessing their involvement in the Russian-Chechen conflict. More than anything else, women were perceived as objects of political and economic gain, their bodies constantly engaged in intertribal exchanges in the teipy system or for maintaining high birth-rates during the Soviet Union. Women’s place in society was strictly defined and limited to that of the domestic sphere and they were totally excluded from any participation in the public sphere. Therefore, it seems even more astounding that a society as highly patriarchal as Chechnya, would allow the formation of a female suicide bomber identity, that women would abandon their ultimate goal – to give life and nurture and would directly involve in probably the most masculine activity – war (and suicide bombing). In the section that follows, I examine some of the possible motivations for these women to join the fight, and myths and realities surrounding them.
 

Female Suicide Bombers: Myths and Realities

As Myers argues, the motivations and “the circumstances that bring women to suicidal attacks are not so simple”.[21] This has been a hotly debated topic for many years now. Why women fight, or more importantly, why women turn to such extreme means of violence as suicide attacks has indeed raised much interest, especially taking into account the extremely patriarchal nature of the societies from which most of these women (if not all) come.

Each case has its peculiarities but most analysts agree that the participation of females in suicide attacks indicates radicalisation of a particular conflict. But why is this so, one may ask? Why does it not surprise us at all if men take up arms or commit extraordinary acts of violence but when it comes to women we seem to be blown away even by the idea itself? Essentialist approaches would suggest that the answer lies in “primordial explanations”.[22] Across centuries and cultures, women have been traditionally “celebrated chiefly for their ability to give and nurture life, not their ability to take it away” and even today, we tend to perceive men as by nature inclined to aggression whereas women are often, if not always, referred to as intrinsically “the better half of humanity”.[23]

However, critics of this essentialist point of view argue that there is nothing “essential” about “peace loving” women and “war-prone” men. If anything else, the female suicide bombers have exploded the myth “that women are inherently more disposed toward moderation, compromise, and tolerance”.[24] Rather, it is the social construction of a female victim identity through everyday discourse in media, politics, and social life that is largely responsible for the continuous creation and re-creation of the so-called essentialist gender stereotypes that form the image of a “weak” woman, victimised by a “strong” man. Indeed, in the absolute majority of the cases, the portrayal of the Chechen female fighters by the media, as well as academia, is that of a victim. Even the term “Black Widows”,[25] coined by the Russian media, suggests that the main reason or the cause behind the fight of these females is their family bereavement, a personal tragedy; that the women who decide on a suicidal attack are mostly widows whose husbands, fathers, and/or brothers have been killed in this brutal war.

As West points out correctly, the role of mass media is especially important here due to its mythmaking capacity.[26] Even when discussing something as horrifying as a suicide attack, the coverage of an event will vary drastically based on a gender of an attacker. It is estimated that “attacks by women receive eight times the media coverage as attacks by men”.[27] Women suicide bombers are often sympathised and viewed just like the actual victims of their suicide attack. Therefore, the portrait we see on the screens of the TV or in the printed press is almost always identical: women without a choice, “acting out of their personal, private turmoil”.[28]

Russians represent them as victims of Chechen terrorists, brainwashed, drugged and/or physically abused. On the contrary, Chechens expose them as rape-victims in the hands of the Russian soldiers, whose husbands have been tortured and brutally killed by the same Russians.[29] The stereotypical gender assumptions that women are intrinsically “gentle, submissive and nonviolent” are so strong, and also produced and reproduced on a daily basis, that even when ready to blow themselves up, women are continued to be viewed as “innocent” and their actions as “utter despair…rather than mere cold-blooded murder of civilians”.[30] Even here, on the battlefields, female suicide bombers are not treated as actors and are deprived of an agency. Even while fighting side by side with men they are believed to be suitable only for secondary and subordinate roles.[31] Seldom would one hear a question, what if these women are ready to commit a suicide bombing not only because of a loss of a beloved one but because they indeed seek Chechnya’s independence? Or what if women’s involvement in this conflict is partly due to the very same patriarchal character of their communities and “their intent is to make a statement…in the name of their gender”?[32]

I am not denying, by any means, that some of the reasons that drive Chechen women and men in a suicide attack are indeed gender-specific, but there are many others that “are common to both female and male combatants”.[33] Motivations for joining the fight may defer slightly across gender (like that of gender equality in a society, for instance) but not fundamentally. Do not men fight more or less for the same reasons? Because they lose people they love? I further agree that many women (and men) are forced into violent actions but it would be a rather simplistic approach to argue that these women suicide bombers only follow the orders of men, perceived by many as the only political actors in the conflict.[34] The problem is that societies continue to be blinded by the traditional gender dichotomy, seeing women as victims and men as defenders.[35] These long prearranged gender attributes are reinforced on daily basis in people’s minds by the mass media as well. In almost every female suicide bombing case, there is an increasing urge to search for some personal story of this or that particular woman which is not always the case when suicide bombings involve men.[36]

Thus, it can be argued that the Western world, accusing Islam of “the strict gendered demarcation” of a society, is itself caught in viewing the world through the very same lenses.[37] Aggression is still considered “the province of men” and as Ward argues, “violent women [are] considered mentally unbalanced and possessed by unimaginable evil”.[38] Dr. Marc Sageman correctly points out that the West has a misconception about the women perpetrating acts of violence and “rather than challenging…prejudices of women”, they are portraying them as second-class citizens.[39]

This myth of the non-existence of female actors during wartime is distorting our understanding of violence in general and the complexities accompanying it. 19 out of 41 captors at the Nord-Ost[40] were women; it is believed that there were at least four females involved in the Beslan elementary school tragedy[41] as well and many others ready to detonate the bombs in Moscow’s metro stations, busy streets or on airplanes, killing tens or even hundreds.[42] Who are these women then if not actors in this brutal war?

Nonetheless, we continue to view political violence as “an overwhelmingly male arena” and see any female participation in it as an anomaly.[43] Societies, media, politicians, academia, even some of the feminist literature, are all actively engaged in the creation of a victimised, “passive” woman identity.[44] However, this “superficial coating” of stereotypical gender assumptions and the myth of victimisation of female fighters, does not stop the violence, it does not prevent women from getting raped, rather, it reinforces our already existent and widespread gender narrow-mindedness and makes these women even more vulnerable.  
 

Conclusion

Mahatma Ghandi believed that due to their natural gifts of “service and sacrifice”, women, not men, “were best suited to awaken the conscious of the world” and serve as mediators in peace processes.[45] However, an unprecedented increase in the number of female fighters in different rebel groups as well as the emergence of a female suicide bomber identity in the past three decades has delivered an astounding “blow to the self-sacrificial and pacifistic trope that has widely characterised female behaviour for centuries”.[46]

In the first part of this paper I have described a complex structure of the Chechen society combining traditional teipy customs and Islamic adats, intermingled with Soviet and Russian cultural influences. By doing so, I have tried to demonstrate the patriarchal nature of the Chechen society, where public and private spheres have been highly demarcated across the gender lines and women have long been viewed (and used) as means of “symbolic exchange”. However, even in such a highly hierarchical and patriarchal society, it was still possible to form a female suicide bomber identity. In the second part of the paper I have explained how our beliefs that women are essentially peaceful and men are naturally inclined to violence encourage us to construct and reproduce ideas about what is right for a woman and what is right for a man. This social construction of gender differences also blurs the line between myths and realities about female suicide bombers in Chechnya or elsewhere.

As argued by many, the emergence of a suicide bomber identity in this region, male or female, may indeed indicate the radicalisation of this conflict. However, to claim that women are willing to die and take the lives of many others because of their blind obedience to the men at the top of the Chechen military echelons, is a mistaken oversimplification of complex gender relations in this part of the world. Nonetheless, the media attention to a female suicide bomber continues to be biased. She “is often portrayed in a sympathetic light to explain – perhaps explain away – her behaviour”,[47] ascribing her actions to what Nordstrom calls “irrational emotionalism”.[48] Such an approach, I argue, is a mistake. Black Widows are not fighting only for revenge or a personal tragedy. Moreover, by their participation, they have indirectly (and maybe to some extent even unintentionally) challenged “symbolic gender boundaries…transgressing the deeply gendered public-private divide” in Chechnya.[49]

However, by saying so, I by no means attempt to justify these or any other acts of violence. As Ness warns, this “changing relationship of females to violence should not…be construed as indicative of progress toward gender equality”.[50] One thing that violence does not bring along is gender equality and justice. What I have tried to show instead is that academia as well as media and political circles should be more careful in labelling Black Widows as mere victims. They are victims of war, but in a broader sense, like everyone else in the Chechen society. Our deeply-rooted beliefs regarding in-born characteristics of one’s gender identity should be challenged and each and every one of us should be aware how we ourselves are socially constructing (or re-enforcing) these identities through fixed stereotypes of seeing a woman as a victim and a man as a fighter. This is important in order to further prevent inequality between the two genders.

 

[1] I would like to thank Inger Skjelsbęk, Steven de Klerk, and Timothy Dixon for their most valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper. 

[2] Cited in Mia Bloom, “Female Suicide Bombers: A Global Trend,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 98.

[3] Dorit Naaman, “Brides of Palestine/Angels of Death: Media, Gender, and Performance in the Case of the Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 32:4 (2007): 934. 

[4] Mia Bloom, “Female Suicide Bombers: A Global Trend,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 94.

[5] Clara Beyler, “Messengers of Death – Female Suicide Bombers,” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, February 12, 2003, http://ict.org.il/apage/printv/10728.php (accessed September 25, 2007).

[6] For an excellent discussion of this issue see Jessica West, “Feminist IR and the Case of the ‘Black Widows’: Reproducing Gendered Divisions,” Innovations: A Journal of Politics, vol. 5 (2005).

[7] Lucy Frazier, “Abandon Weeping for Weapons: Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers,” New York University,  August 6, 2002, http://www.nyu.edu/classes/keefer/joe/frazier.html (accessed October 3, 2007).

[8] Cynthia Enloe, Globalisation and Militarisation: Feminists Make the Link (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 17, original emphasis.

[9] Chechnya is one of 21 autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. It occupies about 5,800 of Russia’s entire 17,075,200 square kilometre territory. According to the 1989 Soviet census, Chechnya’s population consisted of only 1,084,000 people out of Russia’s 148.3 million population. Among these, ethnic Chechens composed only 715,000 people. For more on this, see Robert Seely, Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 8.

[10] Weir (2004) cited in Francine Banner, “Uncivil Wars: ‘Suicide Bomber Identity’ as a Product of Russo-Chechen Conflict,” Religion, State & Society, vol. 34:3 (2006): 220.

[11] Chechnya is a predominantly Sunni Muslim region within a largely Orthodox Russian state and it has its own language which belongs to the Vainakh sub-branch of the North-East Caucasian branch of the Caucasian language family. For more, see Robert Seely, Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 6.

[12] Francine Banner, “Uncivil Wars: ‘Suicide Bomber Identity’ as a Product of Russo-Chechen Conflict,” Religion, State & Society, vol. 34:3 (2006): 220.

[13] Farhana Ali, “Muslim Female Fighters: An Emerging Trend,” Terrorism Monitor, vol. 3:21 (2005).

[14] Robert Seely, Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 9.

[15] Francine Banner, “Uncivil Wars: ‘Suicide Bomber Identity’ as a Product of Russo-Chechen Conflict,” Religion, State & Society, vol. 34:3 (2006): 231.

[16] Ibid., 220.

[17] Francine Banner, “Uncivil Wars: ‘Suicide Bomber Identity’ as a Product of Russo-Chechen Conflict,” Religion, State & Society, vol. 34:3 (2006): 231.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Before the 1990s, the single most significant part of the Chechen collective memory was the deportation of 1944, when Stalin ordered to send its entire population in exile to Central Asia. This incident will later play a crucial role and over the decades will form the basis of the construction of a totally new Chechen identity of resistance. See Thomas Goltz, “Chechnya,” Conversation with History series, Institute of International Studies, University of California Berkeley, November 17, 2003, http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people3/Goltz/goltz-con0.html (accessed October 14, 2007).

[20] There can be some parallels made here with women’s bodies’ “reproductive”, indirect engagement in this conflict, in terms of offering “sons” to the fight on the one hand and on the other hand, using their bodies as time-bombs, when they directly get involved in destroying the enemy. For an extensive discussion on how women’s bodies have been perceived in Chechnya, see Francine Banner, “Uncivil Wars: ‘Suicide Bomber Identity’ as a Product of Russo-Chechen Conflict,” Religion, State & Society, vol. 34:3 (2006): 240-241.

[21] Steven Lee Myers, “From Dismal Chechnya, Women Turn to Bombs,” New York Times, September 10, 2004.

[22] Cynthia Cockburn, The Space Between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict (London, New York: Zed Books, 1998), 13.

[23] Cindy D. Ness, “The Rise in Female Violence,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 84-85.

[24] Mia Bloom, “Female Suicide Bombers: A Global Trend,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 95.

[25] Referring to Shakhidki – Russian version of the Arabic word, meaning warriors who sacrifice their lives for the holy war jihad and become martyrs. See Steven Lee Myers, “From Dismal Chechnya, Women Turn to Bombs,” New York Times, September 10, 2004. Attacks by female suicide bombers are also known as the Mujahidaat. See Farhana Ali, “Muslim Female Fighters: An Emerging Trend,” Terrorism Monitor, vol. 3:21 (2005).

[26] Jessica West, “Feminist IR and the Case of the ‘Black Widows’: Reproducing Gendered Divisions,” Innovations: A Journal of Politics, vol. 5 (2005).

[27] Mia Bloom, “Female Suicide Bombers: A Global Trend,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 100.

[28] Jessica West, “Feminist IR and the Case of the ‘Black Widows’: Reproducing Gendered Divisions,” Innovations: A Journal of Politics, vol. 5 (2005).

[29] Annika Frantzell, “The Radicalisation of Chechnya: A Case Study of the Spread of Radical Islam in Chechnya,” (Lunds Universitet, 2006, unpublished).

[30] Clara Beyler, “Messengers of Death – Female Suicide Bombers”, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, February 12, 2003, http://ict.org.il/apage/printv/10728.php (accessed September 25, 2007).

[31] Jessica West, “Feminist IR and the Case of the ‘Black Widows’: Reproducing Gendered Divisions,” Innovations: A Journal of Politics, vol. 5 (2005).

[32] Clara Beyler, “Messengers of Death – Female Suicide Bombers”, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, February 12, 2003, http://ict.org.il/apage/printv/10728.php (accessed September 25, 2007).

[33] Miranda Alison, “Cogs in the Wheel? Women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” Civil Wars, vol. 6:4 (2003): 39.

[34] Cindy D.Ness, “The Rise in Female Violence,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 85.

[35] Dorit Naaman, “Brides of Palestine/Angels of Death: Media, Gender, and Performance in the Case of the Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 32:4 (2007): 935.

[36] See for example, Steven Lee Myers, “From Dismal Chechnya, Women Turn to Bombs,” New York Times, September 10, 2004 and Anne Nivat, “The Black Widows: Chechen Women Join the Fight for Independence – and Allah,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 28 (2005): 413-419.

[37] Cindy D.Ness, “The Rise in Female Violence,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 90.

[38] Cited in Dorit Naaman, “Brides of Palestine/Angels of Death: Media, Gender, and Performance in the Case of the Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 32:4 (2007): 937.

[39] Cited in Farhana Ali, “Muslim Female Fighters: An Emerging Trend,” Terrorism Monitor, vol. 3:21 (2005).

[40] Nord-Ost siege was the seizure of a crowded Moscow theatre (Nord-Ost musical theatre) on October 23, 2002 by armed Chechen terrorists who claimed allegiance to the separatist movement in Chechnya.

[41] The Beslan elementary school tragedy was a taking of more than 1,100 hostages by armed Chechen terrorists on September 1, 2004, at School Number One in the town of Beslan in the North Caucasus region of Russia, which resulted in the death of more than 300 hostages.

[42] Steven Lee Myers, “From Dismal Chechnya, Women Turn to Bombs,” New York Times, September 10, 2004.

[43] Cindy D. Ness, “The Rise in Female Violence,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 87.

[44] See, for instance, Rosalind Marsh, “Women in Contemporary Russia and the Former Soviet Union,” in Women, Ethnicity and Nationalism: The Politics of Transition, eds. Rick Wilford and Robert L. Miller (London & New York: Routledge, 1998).  

[45] Cited in Cindy D.Ness, “The Rise in Female Violence,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 85.

[46] Ibid., 86.

[47] Stack-O’Connor, “Lions, Tigers, and Freedom Birds: How and Why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Employs Women,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 19 (2007): 54.

[48] Carolyn Nordstrom, “(Gendered) War,” Religion, State & Society, vol. 28 (2005): 410.

[49] Nickie Charles and Helen Hintjens, “Gender, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity: Women’s ‘Places’,” in Gender, Ethnicity and Political Ideologies, eds. Nickie Charles and Helen Hintjens (London & New York: Routledge, 1998), 6.

[50] Cindy D.Ness, “The Rise in Female Violence,” Daedalus, vol. 136:1 (2007): 86.

       
 
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