PKK in Shengal

Dilar Dirik —

One day, the world woke up and suddenly realized that a religious community called the Yezîdîs exist and that a radical jihadist group called the Islamic State, IS, (formerly known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is slaughtering people in Iraq.

Apparently, the warnings of the Kurds in Rojava (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west”, i.e. West Kurdistan/Northern Syria), who have been fighting against radical Islamist groups such as al-Nusra and IS since 2012, and who have been victims of mass-murderous jihadist attacks ever since, without anybody listening or caring, did not matter. Supposedly, IS “swept through the region”, catching us off guard, without warning, unforeseeably, unpredictably, out of nowhere! And the next best thing that comes to mind in terms of a solution to the crisis are Western intervention and bombs…

They say that in times of crisis, one should not play the blame game – a very convenient way out for all of those parties, institutions, and states that have actively or passively contributed to the rise, spread, and establishment of the Islamic State. What a morbid sugarcoat to blur an unjust war in Iraq, the international hijacking and instrumentalization of the so-called “Arab Spring”, global arms trade, sectarianism, Islamophobia, and “the war on terror” into one dark, obscure mess, and throwing responsibility far, far away until the next “unpreventable” tragedy comes along! On the contrary, respecting the victims of this modern-day genocide means to speak openly and critically, so that those responsible can be held accountable. How much of this inferno that currently blows through the Middle East was really unpreventable? Did IS really emerge out of nowhere? And how realistic is it to believe that IS will disappear after a few U.S. airstrikes?

Understanding the current crisis as the result of the policies of the dominant international order, which frames governance in terms of states, power, and hegemony, can help us understand the hypocrisy of the American savior-complex and the wickedness of “European moral duty” to arm their allies against IS, after having enthusiastically been selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which openly support the jihadists, while NATO-ally Turkey provided the Islamists with opportunities to freely cross the border and get medical treatment in private Turkish hospitals. It will further help us make sense of how the same U.S.-backed Kurdish party, which has been propagating independence from Iraq in an arrogant and chauvinist manner at the expense of Kurds in other regions for a long time, was so quick to withdraw its forces from Şengal (Sinjar) without fight, leaving the Yezîdîs at the mercy of IS, and how it was instead the Kurds without any foreign support, who have been internationally marginalized, that rescued ten thousands of Yezîdîs, while yet being labeled as terrorists. In what ways does the humanitarian catastrophe in Şengal illustrate the real face of the status quo, more specifically, that of the nation-state paradigm with its capitalist, chauvinist, patriarchal foundations? And how come the Kurdish “independence” party ended up being so dependent on others, while those Kurdish parties that no longer fight for a state because they reject statehood as inherently oppressive, and who have therefore been accused by nationalists of giving up on “independence”, rescued an entire community by displaying an alternative, more meaningful form of independence through operating outside of the preset parameters of the state?

First of all, some context: The Islamic State is not new. There were several massacres in Rojava over the last two years, committed by the exact same jihadist group, without any sign of outrage within the international community. The absolute silence and the complete lack of awareness of the public on the humanitarian catastrophe in Rojava, in spite of tireless attempts by activists to engage the public and political actors, are indicative of the fact that not much of this current concern is based on genuine ethical commitments to human rights.

After having barbarically massacred thousands of civilians in Syria, and especially in Rojava, IS currently commits unbelievable massacres in another part of Kurdistan, as well as in Iraq and Syria. People are beheaded, crucified, shot, tortured, and forcibly displaced. Women are raped, kidnapped, and sold on slave markets, and children are left to die of hunger and thirst. Homes and sacred sites are burnt, plundered, destroyed, and sullied. Systematic ethnic and religious cleansing are threatening to destroy entire communities and cultures in the Middle East. One feels ashamed to write about these inhumane massacres in a factual manner.

As a result of IS-attacks in early August, thousands of Yezîdî Kurds, members of an ancient religious community that has already faced 72 massacres in its history and now faces yet another genocide, were victims of mass murder campaigns by IS in Şengal, a sacred site for this community. Ten thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes and flee into the nearby Şengal mountains. Many people, especially children and elderly people, died on the run and ten thousands were stranded in the mountains for days, where they faced death by hunger and dehydration. IS continues its vicious murders in surrounding villages. There are shocking reports of sex slave markets and mass-suicides by women, who prefer to kill themselves, in order not to fall into the hands of IS. The death poll increases with each day…

The Yezîdîs in Şengal were supposed to be protected by the peshmerga units (Kurdish fighter units, literally meaning “Those who confront death”) of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is the ruling party of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in South Kurdistan (Northern Iraq). However, when IS launched an attack on Şengal, these forces immediately withdrew without fight and without warning, leaving the population at the mercy of IS and, according to witnesses, refused to supply the people with weapons to defend themselves.

Instead, it was the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), who have been defending Rojava against the Assad regime forces, as well as against jihadists such as IS for the last two years, that crossed the fading Iraqi-Syrian border, in order to defend the Yezîdî people, who were supposed to be protected by the much better equipped KDP. By creating a humanitarian corridor, the YPG/YPJ were able to rescue ten thousands of stranded refugees. Now, they have set up the Newroz Refugee Camp in Derik, Rojava, where countless refugees await further humanitarian aid. Shortly after the YPG/YPJ intervention, the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) also entered the area from the Qandil mountains to join the fight against IS and protect the people and regions under attack. The PYD, the Democratic Union Party, in Rojava, which has been the driving force in the establishment of the autonomous cantons in Rojava in early 2014, as well as in creating the YPG/YPJ as defense units, is ideologically affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK, which is a guerrilla organization that has been fighting against the Turkish state and that struggles for the recognition of Kurdish identity and equal rights. In spite of having dropped the aim of creating a Kurdish state, declaring several unilateral ceasefires, as well as currently engaging in a peace process with the state, the PKK is still considered to be a separatist group and is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the USA, due to Turkey being an important NATO member. This has been a reason for the criminalization and marginalization of the progressive Rojava cantons by the international community. An example for this is the exclusion of the Kurds from the Geneva II peace conference to resolve the Syrian crisis, despite the fact that Rojava is the only region in Syria that has managed to create secular, democratic, inclusive self-governance structures in the midst of a civil war and in spite of attacks by the Assad regime and jihadist groups. Now the Yezîdî refugees, shocked and disappointed at the withdrawal of the highly idealized peshmerga forces, curse the KDP and say things such as “God and the PKK saved us”, “If the PKK didn’t save the Yezîdîs, you wouldn’t see a single one alive” or “Those, who don’t know the PKK, let them find out. They liberated Sinjar mountain”. Many have joined the ranks of the YPG/YPJ to retake and liberate their sacred homelands.

Much to the benefit of the KDP, mainstream media applauded “Kurdish fighters” for rescuing Yezîdîs from the mountains, lumping “the Kurds” into one monolithic category. Even though the peshmerga forces are now achieving strategic victories with U.S. backup, the KDP, which had just recently laughed at the Iraqi army for deserting Mosul and Kirkuk upon IS-attacks in June, abandoned the Yezîdîs in Şengal. There are some news articles and TV programs that have miraculously managed to release entire reports on the situation of Şengal, without mentioning once the key role of the YPG/YPJ and the PKK guerrillas, who have, by all accounts, displayed an impressive rescue mission and who are unilaterally praised by the refugees. Some articles marginally mention “Syrian Kurds” in one or two sentences, before moving ahead to discussing why the “US-allied, pro-Western Iraqi Kurds deserve to be armed” against IS. In one report, one witness’s account of the YPG/YPJ and PKK fighters was translated as “peshmerga”. A surprising amount of articles came out about peshmerga women with no combat experience, who want to fight IS. Even though the intentions of these peshmergas are brave, it is interesting that women in the YPG/YPJ ranks, who have intensive experience in the fight against IS, because they have been dying doing so for almost two years, did not receive this much quick coverage.

Primitive nationalism, fratricidal sell-out politics, and (in)dependence

For a long time, the KDP and their leader, the KRG president Masoud Barzanî, have been engaging in a campaign for Kurdish independent statehood. In doing so, they actively marginalized the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. One of the closest allies of the KDP is Turkey, a country in which 10.000 Kurds are held as hostages in prisons and where Kurds still struggle to be recognized as equal citizens. Another state that dominates the KRG’s policies is Iran, where Kurdish activists are executed on a regular basis. The KDP’s opportunism to consolidate its own power reached its peak, when it adopted a very hostile attitude towards Kurds in Rojava, who have, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, created three autonomous cantons for regional self-governance. Apart from aggressive propaganda language, the KDP closed the border to refugees from Rojava fleeing from IS-massacres and held humanitarian goods back. In April, the party even went as far as digging a border trench between West and South Kurdistan and had peshmerga fighters point weapons at the people protesting the border. The people perceived this as a major manifestation of treason, calling it a “Second Lausanne” [The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 divided Kurdistan into four]. How ironic to advocate Kurdish independent statehood and being called a Second Lausanne by fellow Kurds. The KDP’s concept of liberation is based on economic, capitalist growth, idealized through “independent” oil sales, luxury hotels, and shopping malls, while actively reinforcing the borders drawn in Lausanne by contributing to the oppression of other Kurds. With that in mind, the withdrawal of the peshmergas does not seem to be too surprising either. The peshmergas have been instrumentalized for the independence propaganda, to symbolize the masculinity of the “undefeatable” de-facto state. There is a mystification of peshmerga-ness that associates this identity with Kurdish courage and the freedom struggle. But what once used to be truly “confronting death” against the army of Saddam Hussein has been turned into a regular job tied to a salary. Apart from that, the peshmerga units largely operate along partisan loyalties, leading to the two dominant Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK having their own militias. Hence, it is not surprising that many elderly retired peshmergas listed themselves to fight IS, while the younger generation with no combat experience had fewer motivations, especially since many of them have not been paid regularly, due to the central Iraqi government’s budget cuts to the KRG. The protection of the people, otherwise glorified when its suits the propaganda, is reduced to yet another ordinary part of the apparatus of the state institution.

Ideologically, the tribal-feudal, conservative KDP stands in stark contrast with the leftist-feminist ideology of the Kurdish political movement affiliated with the PKK, the KDP’s traditional rival. The revolution in Rojava is ideologically close to the PKK and the system that is being established there is founded on the PKK’s ideological representative Abdullah Öcalan’s concept of “Democratic Confederalism”. Though the PKK started out with the aim of an independent Kurdish state in the late 70s, it has long transformed its vision and now promotes radical local grass-roots self-governance, gender equality, and ecology, which aims at deeming existing arbitrary borders as meaningless. It rejects the institution of the state as inherently oppressive and hegemonic and discards nationalism as a primitive, backward concept. This move away from statehood as the ultimate manifesto of “independence” has made nationalist sections like the KDP accuse the PKK-affiliated movement of having given up on the “Kurdish dream”.

But is it really true that ideology doesn’t matter in politics, as many claim? No. Even if critical situations often require some pragmatism, in many ways, the events in Şengal illustrate the failure of the nation-state paradigm and the implementation of democratic confederalism in action. In trying to define liberation in terms of capitalist growth, leading to odd pride in oil sales that really only benefit a few multi-millionaire tribes, instead of developing society in a meaningful way, and in trying to assert independence only within the restrictive parameters of the nation-state, which necessitates reliance on some larger power for backup, the KDP has enslaved itself completely and was left absolutely dependent on others. In spite of its macho attempts to declare independence on the backs of other Kurds and other peoples in the region, it failed to protect its citizens and illustrated that the subscription to the dominant order means the opposite of independence. Those who are now in complete denial over the fact that their heroes withdrew now try to save their face by shunning any kind of criticism against the KDP by appealing to this mysterious thing called “Kurdish unity”. Of course it is very convenient to portray criticism of the KDP as promoting disunity. But in reality, it is very open and clear, who has been dividing the Kurds with their opportunistic policies. The KDP has contributed to the rise of IS with its hostilities against Rojava. When IS massacred Kurds in Rojava, the KDP dug a border trench and pointed guns at the people. And now that IS threatened the KRG, it was not the border-trench-digging, oil-selling, wealthy, established, and internationally favored Kurdish party of statehood, the KDP, which rescued ten thousands of lives in its sphere of control, in spite of its arrogant independence campaign. The ones that reject the nation-state independently started a rescue mission, independently fought IS without foreign political, economic, or military support, and independently set up a refugee camp for ten thousands of Yezîdîs, because their understanding of self-determination, freedom, autonomy, and independence recognizes the restrictive, oppressive framework within which the institution of the state operates. Their focus on self-reliance and self-sustainability displayed a more meaningful concept of independence, while, though criticizing nationalism as a backward principle, also illustrating real unity. After all, the PKK guerrillas and their affiliated fighters, i.e. YPG/YPJ from Rojava and PJAK guerrillas from Rojhelat (East Kurdistan/Western Iran) had also previously declared their support for the people in South Kurdistan immediately, when Mosul and Kirkuk were attacked, just as they are now protecting South Kurdistan, regardless of the KDP’s opportunistic actions. Their ideology and political practices also commit to the unity of all peoples, not just nationalist unity among Kurds. Clearly there is a massive difference between different understandings of “independence” and “unity” at hand.

The KDP’s policies exploit the understandable emotional attachment of people, who have lived through a genocide under Saddam Hussein in their living collective memory. This mentality distorts the consciousness of the people so much that every challenge to its corrupt rule are painted as “trying to destroy what we hardly earned”. This understanding of freedom is to have what everyone else does, power, establishment, and hegemony, when in reality, absolutely no state in the Middle East is autonomous and independent in a meaningful way. What makes people think that the KRG, which is still bound to the Iraqi government, a government which itself is a puppet of the US, will be anything worthy of being called independent? If the people want to subscribe to a system like this, based on chauvinist empty nationalism and complete dependency by being a puppet of foreign powers, in the illusion of being independent, then they should accept the nation-state paradigm with all the ugliness and corruptions that come with it. They should decide whether it is a worthy “Kurdish dream”, when an Iranian embassy in the KRG can issue a statement that says “Kurdish is not a language”. Or whether it should be a source of pride to see Turkish foreign minister Davutoglu address the people in South Kurdistan in Kurdish, when there are thousands of political prisoners in Turkish prisons, because they want the Kurdish language to have a legal base in Turkey.

If this is the kind of Kurdistan people dream of, they should be less surprised that this sort of “independence” means having to desperately wait for American aid, when Yezîdî citizens are massacred. But then they also should not have laughed at the Iraqi army for deserting Mosul and Kirkuk. Or perhaps they should just stop abusing the word independence. But the KDP’s clever backstabbing propaganda of statehood, which uses terms like “independence” -clever terminology no reasonable Kurd would seem to say no to- to assert its power, should be an insult for people, who have been bravely fighting against Saddam Hussein, in the hope for freedom.

It is no surprise that the same statehood-obsessed mentality enthusiastically praised Netanyahu for his support for Kurdish statehood in June. Although one would think that Kurds would understand the suffering of the Palestinians under the apartheid fascist occupation of the state of Israel very well, it is yet again the dogma of the state that defines morality in terms of interest, leading to the odd conclusion of having to ally with Israel. Perhaps the Kurds, who had applauded Netanyahu, felt ashamed of themselves, when the mass murderous military campaign on the Palestinian people was launched by Israel, briefly after Netanyahu’s statement in support of Kurdish statehood.

This same mentality that relies on the illusion of independence as statehood puts the people into such a deep state of false consciousness that they almost scream “Thank you for your bombs, America!”, as if U.S. foreign policy was out there handing out bombs out of their random, unconditional love for the Kurdish people. First of all, the current discourse in international media, which treats Kurds as discardable objects, while calculating whether or not they are deserving of support, based on how “loyal” to the West they could be, is absolutely shameless, ruthless, and degrading. Over the top of the heads of people, who stare in the face of a genocide, Western analysts speculate which people would be more available to serve Western interests and whether they are deserving of being blessed with the same weapons that they had previously sold to other corrupt governments which have passed them on to the jihadists. Secondly, global arms trade and US policies are some of the factors that created this horrible situation that is World War III in everything but in name, in the first place. Thus, it is hard to conceive how they could be the solution. The heavy weapons in the possession of IS were mostly captured when they invaded Mossul; they are mainly American weapons. Believing that IS will be eradicated with a few air strikes or the arming of puppet regimes on the ground is wishful thinking. At least it is for those, who want to feel like they have accomplished something useful, in order to be able to sleep with a better conscience. But for the dominant powers, it is the cleverest way of reproducing their interests in the region. Just let that sink in for a moment: After having started an unjust war in Iraq, playing the second Cold War in Syria, ignoring the Kurdish cantons in Syria, which have established very progressive structures in spite of their extreme situation, and closing eyes to obvious support for jihadists by its allies, the US now bombs the area again to destroy a jihadist group which holds American weapons and which would have never come so far without foreign support (esp. from US allies like Turkey, Saudi and Qatar) and so many deliberately closed eyes – the U.S. is yet again engaging in military action, still labeling the ones who rescued the Yezîdîs as terrorists – and we are expected to stage standing ovations! The Americans are yet again praised as the saviors of the Middle East, even though their aid arrived on mount Sinjar, long after those that they designate as terrorists had already rescued the people! How kafkaesque!

Apart from that, air strikes are an extreme short-term attempt of a solution and will only defer the decline of the region to a later date. Blunt military action ignores the fact that the IS enjoys a decent support base especially among Sunnis, who have been alienated and marginalized from Maliki’s Shiite regime, as well as Assad’s Alawite regime. U.S. and European policies have actively exploited these existing sectarian divides. IS was able to seize heavy US artillery in Mosul so easily, partly because of these sectarian tensions. It ignores the fact that IS does not consist of a bunch of crazy, irrational bandits, but that it is a well-organized group that uses rhetorics and technology in a very sophisticated manner. It ignores the fact that the so-called “collateral damages” in unjust wars in Muslim-majority countries were actually losses of the lives of hundred thousands of real people, whose communities now want to take revenge. It ignores the fact that many of the jihadists join from European countries, after Islamophobia and xenophobia have discriminated against them in societies that teach equal opportunity. Of course absolutely NONE of these aspects justify the barbaric mass murders of IS, but it becomes obvious that a mere bombing of the symptom will not get rid of the disease. A disease which has been fueled by U.S. and European foreign policy, global arms trade, and support for jihadists by NATO-allies, on top of the existing sectarian tensions. The peoples of the Middle East, as well as EU and US citizens deserve to know that.

The solution cannot be just to bomb IS, the solution must be radical and political and must include the recognition of actors such as the cantons in Rojava, as well as the PKK, who have been the main parties to rescue the Yezidis and who have been fighting jihadists for two years. Not because they “deserve” support, but because they have the people’s legitimacy through popular support from millions of people, who regard them as their representatives. This must include the delisting of the PKK from the EU and US lists of terrorist organizations. As with many other cases of “terror listing”, the labeling of the PKK as “terrorist” is a foreign policy of appeasement and control, an inter-NATO present for Turkey. At least the delisting would relieve the confused public and media who scratch their heads over how terrorists could be fighting terrorists, after they have been conditioned to subscribe to a black-and-white world. Terror listings make no distinction between cruel, barbaric, inhumane thugs or political actors, who challenge the interests of the status quo. And in the case of the PKK, the terror designation criminalizes entire communities of ordinary people. Similarly, Rojava has to be recognized. The co-presidents of the PYD in Rojava have been trying to engage in diplomatic contacts with political actors, but have been refused visas into some EU countries as well as the USA several times.

Independence and Freedom

Bombing the area for a short-term solution, but still engaging in the same political strategies will perpetuate the same corrupt, sectarian system of dependency in the region and just prolong the process of the slow death of the Middle East. Letting go off the dogma of the nation-state and hegemonic power thus also has the potential to liberate the peoples of the Middle East from the Stockholm syndrome-like straight jacket, which looks Westward whenever a crisis emerges. Of course the state of statelessness makes entire communities vulnerable, in a system that denies entire lived realities by recognizing only a few institutionalized forms of power, called states. The Kurds know this best. However, the problem is not statelessness, but the state. Rejecting the state does not mean surrender, because the state is not to be confused with autonomy, freedom, or independence. On the contrary, the events in Şengal clearly show the shortcomings of this idea. As PKK commander Duran Kalkan puts it: “The essence of the state is a force for organised suppression and exploitation. The state is a system, to be a state means to be a part of the system. This means dependence and collaboration. Small states are dependent on larger states, and they are all dependent to the state system. It is very clear that the state cannot be free and independent. The statist paradigm has no room for independence and freedom. Only societies with a free and independent consciousness can truly be free and independent. This can only be achieved through the organised individual and society, which will lead to a democratic individual and society.”

The insitution of the state has indoctrinated our thought patterns so much that we are unable to conceive of an alternative system. However, when we look at the cantons in Rojava, we can see a hopeful example of how, in spite of some shortcomings due to inexperience and the lack of resources due to economic and political embargoes, democratic, secular, and gender-egalitarian structures of self-determination can evolve. In the midst of the Syrian civil war, the people of Rojava have declared three cantons with 22 ministries each, where each minister has two deputies, one Kurd, one Arab, one Assyrian, at least one of which has to be a woman. They have built people’s councils in cities, villages, and neighborhoods, as well as farming and living cooperatives, women’s councils, and women’s academies. The PKK-inspired co-presidency principle, which splits the chair between one woman and one man, as well as a 50-50 split among women and men in all administrative levels are enforced. Even if media perpetuates this claim, the Rojava revolution does not aim to secede from Syria, because it no longer considers the borders of Sykes-Picot as valid. This sort of independence and autonomy relies on itself, regardless of the arbitrary statist structures imposed from the outside. Hence, in spite of international marginalization, while fighting Assad and IS under bad conditions, it was fighters from Rojava, who came to the rescue of the Yezîdis in South Kurdistan. This should be a much more desirable aim than being able to say “I have a state, I am part of the system”.

And last but not least, the feminicidal IS-groups wage a war on women. They specifically dehumanize women as means to an end, enslaving them for one or two hour-long lasting so-called “jihad marriages” to rape them with so-called “religious approval”. In their war on women, they have declared it as “halal” (i.e. “permissible”) to rape the women on the side of their enemies, using sexual violence as a systematic tool of war. It is estimated that thousands of women have been kidnapped, raped or sold in slave markets by IS. According to delegations that visited Şengal, hundreds of women have committed suicide, in order not to fall into the hands of IS. Against this ultra-patriarchal hell, the concept of democratic confederalism and the PKK’s women’s liberation ideology are also a strong and radical counter-force to the disgusting mentality of IS. According to YPG/YPJ fighters, jihadists believe to lose their status as martyrs when dying from a woman’s hand. The Kurdish women’s movement however does not only struggle against the ultra-patriarchal jihadi mentality on the military terrain; the struggle is a wider social emancipatory project and has already challenged and changed patriarchy in Kurdistan to a remarkable degree. Transforming society’s gender awareness and founding its freedom on fundamental principles like gender equality, as manifested in all elements of the movement, [be this in Rojava’s administration or in North Kurdistan (East Turkey), where Kurdish women make up more than 60% of all women mayors in all of Turkey (more than 80% if the co-presidents are counted), thanks to the movement’s efforts to transform society – something which again, stands in stark contrast to the KDP’s feudal-patriarchal tribal characteristics], is a much more sustainable form of struggle against the mentality of IS. After all, IS exploited the conservative notion of “honor” as the control over women’s sexualities and bodies, which was already prevalent in the region, to assert its feminicide. Challenging the state as the institutional extension of patriarchy has contributed immensely to the liberation of women in Kurdistan. This is the ideology behind the women fighters, who cause so much fear in IS jihadists that they wage a war on women.

The fighters of the Kurdish defense forces from Rojava (West Kurdistan/Syria), who have been internationally marginalized and ostracized for two years, and guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party PKK, which is labelled as a terrorist organization, have taught the international community a lesson in humanitarian intervention. They have further taught the KDP, the macho of statehood, what real independence and autonomy mean. The people can only liberate themselves and these past couple of days have illustrated that being a puppet of the global capitalist, nation-state-oriented order, a policy of Barzanî’s party, leads to complete dependency and unfreedom, while those outside of the dominant system have efficiently and impressively saved thousands of lives. It is high time that we reconsider what kind of freedom we envision. I believe that we owe this to all the human beings that now suffer in this hell on earth.


Author: Dilar Dirik
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