Last Days of a Tyrant


He looked dull and dismal as he walked into the posh sitting room to shake hands with his visitors. His grim visage showed he was in no mood for lengthy discussion. He had a cold and kept sneezing and blowing his nose in between each sentence. “Ya know, I’ve been down with bad fever for days now,” Samuel Kanyon Doe, President of Liberia, said, his voice hoarse and barely audible. “Ya can be sure I’ll grant ya an interview as soon as am better. No problem, my man,” he said in his accented American English, blowing his nose once more as he took leave. He looked lonely and pensive as he walked away. There seemed to be very few civilian aides and allies left behind or visiting the president these days.

Outside, some 300 fierce looking soldiers armed with sophisticated weapons stood guard, encasing the executive mansion and shielding Doe against the reality of his war-torn country. Platoons of soldiers, couched like alligators behind huge sandbags, glared viciously at every visitor. Two armoured tanks, fitted with radar devices and stationed at the main gate completed the fortification of Doe’s palatial official residence, located at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

His running nose aside, June 28, 1990, was not exactly a good day for Doe. News coming in from Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, had finally confirmed his worst fears. The rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, NPFL, had, to his horror, turned down all entreaties by Liberian religious leaders and called off peace talks to end the seven-month civil war to oust him. To further compound his grief, virtually all his advisers and top government officials who went to Freetown to seek peace had dramatically turned their backs on him. With the rebels on the fringes of Monrovia, they could not risk a return to brief Doe.

Tambakai Jangaba, the “wise old man” and leader of Doe’s delegation to the peace talks, who telephoned Doe to break the bad news, had himself arrived Freetown for the talks with his entire household, complete with his grandchildren and housekeepers. Boyish and randy information minister, Emmanuel Bowier, who had all along remained a vocal loyalist and spokesman of the embattled regime, had found the cosy serenity of the Three Star Mammy Yokko Hotel in Sierra Leone too absorbing to exchange for the all-night staccato gunshots in Monrovia. Dressed in a faded blue jean and a gray T-shirt with the inscription “Bogle Boy: Commander of the Mountain Patrol,” Bowier told Newswatch: “I came here to talk peace, man. Here I will stay to seek peace, rebels or no rebels.” He had finally joined the long list of ministers fleeing Monrovia. One member of the peace talks delegation who went back to Monorovia was Moivabah Fofana, an assistant commissioner in the Bureau of Customs and representative of the Moslem community in the government delegation. “I am just going back to see whether I can get my family out in time,” he told Newswatch inside a car that took both of them from Kenema in Sierra Leone to Monrovia.

Monrovia, capital of “Sweet Liberia,” stood last week at the edge of a precipice, surrounded by guns, deserted by men, gloomy: a shadow of its bustling past, a graphic sign that the days of Doe are numbered. Mass killings, abduction, destruction, confusion, tribal hatred, lack of food, water and light, anger and protest have conspired to make the last days of Doe a tale of woe. Wednesday, June 27, thousands of Liberians, for the third time in one week, poured unto the streets. Their message: “Doe must go,” “Doe, please resign,” “Sammy, come down today.”
The past two demonstrations had been relatively peaceful. They were called “Peace March” and were mainly organized by Christian and moslem leaders who go by the name of Inter-Faith Committee. Today, the religious leaders had sought the backing of 20 professional and civic bodies, and they responded in sufficient number. They included the Press Union of Liberia, PUL; the Liberian Bar Association, LBA; the National Teachers Association, the Workers Union; and the Federation of Students Union. Traders, market women and shopkeepers closed their shops and joined the protest.
From an open field at Capital By-Pass in the centre of the city, the crowd defied a heavy rain and began their march, singing, chanting, waving placards; trailed all the way by pressmen. Destination: Executive Mansion, the residence and office of Doe. At a military barracks on a road called UN Drive, trouble struck. A company of soldiers, unable to stop the marchers, broke into the crowd, whipping the protesters with military belts. A free-for-all fight ensued between soldiers and the crowd. Soon, gunshots filled the air. Five men were down on the spot from gunshot wounds. Hundreds of others were injured in the stampede that followed. The crowd scattered and ran for safety. Even soldiers, who had mistakenly thought the shootings came from the rebels, were seen running for their lives. Any sympathy left for Doe had, from that moment, disappeared with the smoke from the gun shots.

The Unity Party (of Liberia), UP, the Liberian Action Party, LAP, and the Liberian Peoples Party, LPP, issued separate statements calling for Doe to quickly step down and make way for peace. In a press statement signed by Mambu David, secretary-general of the UP, the party said it had watched with dismay the tragic dilemma in which Liberia has been put by the government. “The gross human rights violation, the killings of innocent citizens, public harassment, the closure of schools, the collapse of the economy, as well as the inability of the government to deal with the insurgency by NPFL, which has resulted in thousands of deaths and refugees at home and abroad, are no longer acceptable,” the UP said. In view of “this calamity,” the Unity Party called on Doe to “resign immediately in order to save the nation from further bloodshed.”

In its own statement, the LAP traced the rebellion, which began on December 24, to what it called “bad government.” It was obvious that the regime had “crumbled,” it said, and Doe had no choice but to “step aside.” Said the party, “In a nutshell, the country is in disarray. The government has lost stamina and control. The credibility of the administration of Doe has been completely eroded at home and abroad. The image and future of Liberia under the regime is bleak. A state of anarchy now prevails which the people of this country cannot endure any longer. The Liberian Action Party is of the view that the continuous stay in office of President Doe one day longer does not augur well for the restoration of peace, stability, free and fiar democratic process in Liberia.”

The LPP, pleading with Doe to quit, recalled a statement made by Doe May 25, 1990, when the youth wing of Doe’s party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia, NDPL, visited the Executive Mansion. Doe had said then: “If the people of Liberia even say Mr. President, the only way the war will stop is for you to step aside and let us bring a new man to run the country, I will step aside.” The LPP, therefore, said, in view of the massive calls made by a cross section of the society for him to step down, “we now call upon the president to honour his own promise and step aside because the party believes the resignation and departure of his government will create a fertile ground for peace and reconciliation.” In the days that followed, virtually all newspapers in Monrovia wrote editorials explaining why Doe must resign.

Daily Observer, the leading tabloid in Liberia, for two consecutive days (June 26 and 27) devoted its editorials to Doe’s resignation. In its June 26 editorial titled “Resign, Mr. President,” the paper said Doe’s resignation was the only way out of further bloodshed, destruction, hardship and misery. “We have reached the cross roads; the country as it is now is ungovernable; its resources are depleted; its people are distressed and confused. The people cannot take it anymore. There is now only one course left to save the nation, and that course must be taken as an act of mercy. The president must resign. Resign, Mr. President and secure yourself a place in history. Please, go away in peace,” the paper said.

The next day, the paper adopted a harsher tone in its editorial titled “For the Love of God, Go.” Doe was hardly referred to again as “Mr. President.” The paper, just like the people, was beginning to run short of patience. Said the paper: “How long can Doe try the people’s patience? How many more heads must be cut off? How many more must seek refuge in foreign countries before Doe realizes his resistance is in vain. We repeat, Mr. Doe, please resign. Do not wait any longer. Resign now before it is too late.”

Said the News, owned partially by government June 27: “Since no government is indispensable and the fact that the taller a bamboo grows the lower it bends, the wishes of the people must prevail. We call for the immediate and unconditional resignation of President Doe?

As the demand for Doe’s resignation mounted and the rebels tightened their choke-hold on the road to Monrovia, words leaked out from the Executive Mansion June 27 that Doe would broadcast to the nation later that night. Government watchers were confident the hour of reckoning had come and Doe was about to bow out. The public hooked on to the radio all night with subdued jubilation. But no dice. The former master-sergeant, who shot his way into power April 1980, had changed his mind to the discomfiture of Liberians thirsty for peace. Diplomatic sources attributed the cancellation of the “nationwide broadcast” to a last minute disagreement between Doe and the American government, who had promised Doe a safe passage to exile in the country of his choice. The Americans, diplomatic sources said, were ready to guarantee safe passage for Doe and 10 other people of his choice but Doe was said to insist on 150 people.

Instead of his expected resignation as demanded by the rebels and protesters, the information ministry put to circulation a six-page pamphlet on why Doe cannot resign. Titled “Resignation is no Solution,” the document barely stopped short of saying Doe was indispensable. “Given the situation where no one is found suitable or acceptable, the question is: Must President Doe resign, leaving troubled Liberia without a leader? Absolutely No,” the government document said. According to the document, “there is no precedence in the history of Liberia where the president of the republic had resigned contrary to constitutional provisions or where he was made to leave the office without the people first knowing the successor.” The document cited the constitution of Liberia and said it makes no provision for the removal of the president either by force of arms or by compulsory resignation. As it put it: “For Dr. Doe, to quit in these times of national crisis would be setting a dangerous precedence for which present and future generations of Liberians will not forgive him. He would be leaving a vacuum which could create political disaster, national chaos and calamity.” Instead of resigning, the document said Doe was willing to end his rule in October 1991, when his tenure will expire, without seeking a re-election.

In his efforts to buy time till 1991, Doe had, in addition, embarked on a series of fence-mending measures. He said he would facilitate and amend the constitution to permit rebel leaders and exiled opponents to contest the 1991 election. He was referring to the part of the constitution that requires aspirants to be resident in Liberia for at least 10 years. He said he would now allow opposition parties to have a say in the appointment of Electoral Commission, ECOM, officials and went ahead to dissolve the ECOM he had appointed a few years back. He announced an unconditional general amnesty to opponents who were either convicted, accused or suspected of committing offences against the State and lifted the ban on two banned political parties and the national students union. He even dropped charges of embezzlement against rebel leader Charles Taylor. The information ministry even dropped hints that he was prepared to meet with Taylor, a man Doe had earlier declared wanted.

Furthermore, he announced cuts in the prices of food, including rice, the staple food. He ordered that, beginning from June 21, a 100 pound bag of rice should be sold for $25, $10 short of the market price. Only last year, government had announced increase in the price of the same quantity of rice from $23 to $35. But in announcing the reversal of price, Doe said any dealer caught selling above approved price would be “arrested and banned from selling rice in Liberia.”

In spite of his sudden generosity, there is no let up for Doe. Most angry Liberians who have rejected his “gestures” wonder what Doe is waiting for. Said George Drapper, a workers union official: “He is in a quandary. Maybe he thinks the presidency is a profession.” But Henry Jallar, a student, thinks differently. “I think he want to leave power the same way he made Tolbert leave – in bits and pieces.” Doe’s predecessor, William Tolbert, was killed by troops led by Doe and reportedly dismembered, before 13 of his (Tolbert’s) officials were strapped to wooden stakes on the beach and shot.

As the rebels gunning for Doe stepped into a part of Monrovia last week and cut off all communications with the city, there were no indications Doe had any significant defence outside roadblocks. There were no obvious trenches, bunkers or other positions being prepared around the city. Some of Doe’s soldiers appeared even more scared of the rebels than stoic civilians. On June 27, when government soldiers fired warning shots to disperse anti-Doe demonstrators, many soldiers who thought the rebels had finally arrived were seen running in search of a hideout.
The army itself is ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Though Doe is said to have recently received plane-loads of arms from a friendly West African State, (which this reporter know but would not disclose), Liberia does not even have an air force that would have assisted its ground troops against the rebels. Doe’s personal security, one African diplomat told Newswatch, is guaranteed by a handful of Israeli mercenaries. Obviously, because of the army’s lack of firing power, Doe, in one moment of desperation, recently urged civilians to “take cutlasses, shotguns and bows and arrows to fight the NPFL.” Hardly anybody heeded the call.

Army atrocities against helpless civilians may be part of the reason for apathy and disdain for Doe and his troops. The human rights group, Africa Watch, says the army responded to the initial rebel incursion by indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians, raping women, burning villages and looting. ”Newswatch investigation and interviews last week in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where most Liberians have taken refuge, confirmed that Doe’s last days are a sordid tale of atrocities. The army competes with the rebel troops in tribally-induced massacre.

Most victims killed by the rebels are the Krahns, Doe’s ethnic group, as well as the Madingo tribesmen, considered as Doe’s ally. Fofana, a Madingo and delegate to the futile Freetown peace talks, told Newswatch that more than 8,000 Madingo people have so far been killed by the rebels. Though that might be exaggerated, there is a reported case of 11 Madingo imams who were killed in Nimba County by rebels in one day. “The painful thing,” said Fofana, “is that the international press had ignored our plight. We are now pleading with NPFL to spare the Madingo people because we are businessmen with minimal interest in politics.”

But Doe’s troops hold the ace in the Liberian pogrom. Last week, when the rebels stormed parts of Monrovia, there were still some court-marital cases pending on cases of kidnappings and killings by government soldiers. One of such cases was the case of abduction and killing of Vanjah Richards, professor and mayor of Clay Ashland by Andrew Gaye, a lieutenant of the Waterloo Checkpoint Command. When the murderous lieutenant appeared for trial June 20, he had told the court-marital board that his commander, Henry Johnson, a major, had ordered him to kill Richards. Similarly, David Toweh, a senator from Nimba Country, had his 17-year-old son abducted and killed in May. Hundreds of Gio and Mano people have similarly been abducted and killed in Monrovia. On the outskirts of Monrovia two weeks ago, 10 bullet-riddled and mutilated bodies strewed the sidewalk. There was blood all over. The victims were reportedly lined-up and shot in the early hours of the day by government troops. Government soldiers in the area were reported to say that the victims were “men targeted by the army as rebel sympathizers.” They were identified later as Gio and Mano men from Nimba Country, where the rebel incursion began.

At a point, such killings were so appalling some top military officers felt compelled to take action. Henry Dubar, chief of army staff, said he had to personally spend several nights apprehending soldiers found at illegal beats. He arrested three enlisted soldiers. One of them, James Grear, a private with the brigade headquarters in Monrovia, had shot and killed one Edward Wellemongar for tribal reasons. Many believe most of the killings are hatched by a murder squad led by Harrison Pannue, a Khran and cousin of Doe, who once boasted that he personally murdered former President Tolbert.
Early in June, Khran soldiers stormed the United Nations, UN, compound in the capital city where several hundred Gio and Mano people had sought refuge. They abducted about 40 people at gunpoint and sprayed them with gunfire poles away from the UN premises. At least 30 of the refugees died on the spot. Doe later visited the UN compound along Tubman Boulevard to tell the panicky refugees that he would protect them. But the refugees did not believe him. They had received a similar pledge from a government minister a day before the killings. After that incident, Javier Peres de Cueller, secretary-general of the UN, ordered the withdrawal of all international UN staff and promised not to return until the war ends. The UN pull-out terrified thousands of refugees. They fled to the St. Peters Lutheran Church premises, where Newswatch found most of them last week. “We don’t still feel safe at all, but most of us here are too poor to travel to the nearest border town,” Fred Kporsor said.

In his last days, Doe had found out that the trouble with his army is not just lack of fire power but plenty of indiscipline. Most of the troops are drunk most of the time. It is normal in Monrovia to see a soldier on duty tottering with a bottle of gin in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. In a bar opposite the information ministry, a few poles away from the Executive Mansion, even soldiers guarding the road leading to the president’s residence are found drinking themselves to stupor. “Gi ma another bottle of criminally-cold beer, man,” an already drunk sergeant armed with an AK 47 rifle, a grenade and bayonet, screamed at the top of his voice, sending shivers through the spines of foreign journalists who hurriedly emptied their glasses and disappeared.

In one of the checkpoints on the road to Kenema, the border town with Sierra Leone, a tipsy soldier demonstrating how he would deal with the rebels, two weeks ago, ended up spraying six of his colleagues with bullets. One died on the spot and five were rushed to a nearby hospital. Efforts to restore discipline, including missions by resident US military advisers to the war fronts, have failed to produce any tangible change. In the last three weeks, US military jeeps have simply restricted their job to patrolling around roadblocks in the city to rescue unfortunate victims harassed, ripped off their money and valuable items and still detained by trigger-happy troops. As a result of these endless harassments and suffering, anxiety has mounted and many in Monrovia are praying for Taylor to speed up the capture of Monrovia, if that will guarantee a return to normalcy. Said one hotel proprietor: “The only way out is for Charles Taylor to hurry up a bit.”

The failure of the government to guarantee security, coupled with the not-so-good reputation of the advancing rebels, have contributed to the rapid desertion of Doe by top government officials. Ministers, security chiefs, top journalists and bankers, among others, have fled Monrovia. Said one minister who has taken residence in Kenema, Sierra Leone: “Nobody wants to be strapped to a stake and shot like a common criminal.” As at last week, only two senior government officials, apart from Doe, were known to have remained in Monrovia. They were Harry Moniba, the respected vice-president who has succeeded in distancing himself from Doe without earning his wrath, and James Gongar, education minister. In the ministry of finance, none of the three ministers is in the country and this has created problems with workers’ salaries. Emmanuel Shaw, the finance minister, fled to London. His deputy, J. Harris, is in Freetown. The where-about of Jumita Neal, the assistant minister, is not known. A similar situation obtains in the Central Bank of Liberia where Thomas Hanson, the governor, has fled, just like his deputy Francis Hurton.

Other key officials who have abandoned Doe include Yudu Gray, minister of public works; Elijah Taylor, minister of planning; Martha Sendolo Belleh, minister of health; Rudolph Johnson, foreign affairs minister; Gblozuo Toweh, agriculture minister; Ansumannah Kromah, internal affairs minister; Yancy Peters Flah, presidential affairs minister; Emmanuel Gardner, the director of the budget; as well as Patrick Kugmeh, the press secretary to Doe, who is now in Freetown. In the public corporations, the bosses of the Liberian electric corporations, LEC, the National Insurance Corporation, the Housing Bank of Liberia, the Produce Marketing Corporation, the National Investment Commission, the Forestry Development Authority, among others, have all fled Liberia. In addition, the police director, Wilfred Clark, as well as the police chief of traffic, Deater Lincola, and the mayor of Monrovia, Kwia Johnson, are not in the country. Kenneth Best, one of the best-known journalists in Liberia and boss of Daily Observer, is now in Accra, Ghana.

When the Liberian senate tried to hold a session two weeks ago in the midst of anti-Doe protests, only nine of the 36 senators were available and could not form a quorum. Moniba told reporters some senators were on sick leave, the common excuse given by run-away officials. Deluged by travelers, the foreign ministry said few weeks ago it had run short of fresh passports. An army transport plane for several weeks now has also been shuttling Khran people across rebel territory to their home country in Grand Gedeh, where Doe, according to diplomatic sources, had originally planned to return when Taylor takes over the Executive Mansion. As many as 2,000 soldiers are stationed there but cut off by the rebels who invaded the country in such a way that they spilt the country into two and occupy the mineral-rich center of the country facing Monrovia.

With all the key managers of the economy in exile and the NPFL controlling the major mines, timber and rubber plantations, the economy of Liberia in the last days of Doe is at a virtual standstill. Export earnings have nose-dived by more than 80 percent. Government coffers, as a result, are nearly empty. Salaries have become a luxury. Prices of food in Monrovia, when found at all, have gone through the roof. A 100-pound bag of rice, which Doe ordered to be sold for $25, now goes for $150. A tin of palm-oil which sold at $15, is now $45. A gallon of kerosene sold a few months ago at five dollars, is now $15. In the interior areas such as Sinoe, prices are even higher. A bag of salt, sold at 75 cents, is now $8.50. The same quantity is sold at five dollars in Monrovia.

Fish can hardly be found in the market anymore due to lack of petrol (or gasoline, as the Liberians call it) for the Kru fishermen. Transportation has come to a near halt for the same reason and commercial life is in limbo. The Greenville general market, said to be one of the busiest, was empty when Newswatch visited. A bag of cassava, previously sold at $10, went for $75. Even then, women purchased it in a scuffle. In the rural parts of Greenville, acute shortage of kerosene has turned many homes into something like photographic darkrooms. Most families now make use of expensive palm-oil in place of kerosene. They place palm-oil in empty tins and insert pieces of cloth to form wicks.

Workers hardly go to work in Monrovia these days. When they do, they loiter outside for a while discussing the escapades of Charles Taylor. Schools are closed. All that was required to send the University of Liberian, UL, packing two weeks ago was telephone call from the rebels. Practically the only credible institution left in the country is religious. The religious institution is the one that initiated and spearheaded the Freetown peace talks. It is the same institution that started the internal anti-Doe protests. It has also taken the responsibility of hosting thousands of refugees from poor homes who are unable to leave the strife-torn country.

“When we lie down in our small homes and sleep peacefully, even when we eat nuts, we don’t know how much we should be grateful to God,” one woman heading for a refugee camp in far-away Sierra Leone with seven children said, tears welling up her eyes. The last days of Doe have succeeded in turning close to a quarter of the country’s 2.5 million population into refugees. Some 150,000 are said to be in Ivory Coast. Another 100,000 are in Guinea. Sierra Leone refugee population is swelling up every day and hovers around 25,000 now. Friday, June 30, Martha Browne, a shop owner in Monrovia, broke down and sobbed as the taxi-driver parked to drop her and her two kids immediately after the Mano River bridge separating Liberia and Sierra Leone. “No, am not stopping here. I never been here, please, no, don’t leave us here, we will die,” she pleaded, crying. The taxi-driver and other passengers were in a dilemma. It was better she stopped like some other poor Liberian refugees around the Mano River villages, rather than continuing for another 80 miles to Zimmi or another 115 miles to Kenema, the driver argued.

Two women, their kids strapped to their backs and bundles of household wares balanced on their heads, walked past towards the direction of the village primary school. A group of children sat on the bare floor. Their mothers clamoured for a place in the queue for food. Then the queue collapsed and they began a battle with each other to get their plates filled. “Join them, they are Liberians,” the driver told Browne, as he took off, leaving the woman transfixed on the roadside.

It was the cruel reality thousands of proud Liberians are finding hard to endure. Entire villages have been forced to flee their lands. Their homes have been shattered and scattered in different countries, cities and villages. Children, most of them hungry and sick, cry endlessly in the face of sudden hardship they cannot even comprehend. Those taking refuge inside Liberia numbering about 24,000, appear to be even worse off with lack of water and acute shortage of food and other basic commodities. Nigeria, the United Nations, the European Community, as well as the International Committee of Red Cross, ICRC, many aid and philanthropic organizations are rushing aid and relief to victims of the latest African war.

But what is needed most, according to diplomats in Monrovia, is the immediate political solution to the crisis itself. Barely a week ago, Joseph Momoh, president of Sierra Leone, who has watched the tragic events in Liberia from close quarters called on Nigeria, Togo and Guinnea, countries considered to be friendly with Doe, to “join efforts and prevail on (Doe) to resign.” Many Liberians, both at home and abroad, seem to share Momoh’s view as the only solution to the bloodshed. Many Liberians, who looked up to Nigeria in particular to help solve the problem, appear increasingly uncomfortable with what they call the “rather confusing signals from Nigeria.” Said Amos Dukuly of the UL: “It does appear that Nigeria would prefer to rescue the political career of one man (Doe) than the lives of the people of Liberia.” For Fofona, delegate of the Freetown peace talks, “Nigeria is the only country in Africa that can help us out because Liberians have a lot of respect for Nigeria.”

The role of the United States, too, appear somewhat passive, a kind of let-them-stew-in-their-own-juice policy. It refused Doe’s request for arms. It ruled out any military intervention and tried half-heartedly to broker an end to the bloodshed, after it had ordered its citizens out. Taylor, who had initially said he wanted to get hold of Doe, “dead or alive,” was persuaded by the US State Department to modify his position. He assured US he would allow Doe to leave Monrovia to avoid bloodbath and unnecessary destruction of property. It was left for Washington to persuade Doe to leave. Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, shuttling between Taylor and Doe, two weeks ago, told the House of Representative sub-committee on Africa that “the current US policy towards Liberia was to seek to achieve a cease-fire and a freely held, internationally-monitored election.” Taylor concluded America had been wasting his time. He sealed up the country and took the battle straight to Monrovia.

As it became apparent last week that Taylor meant business and seriously wants to kick Doe out in a battle for Monrovia, the US hurried back to the Executive Mansion to get Doe ready for a safe escape, possibly via one of its warships off the Liberian coast. It was almost certain at press time that the former master-sergeant would not last another week as the “beloved icon” of Liberia. Asked last week what Doe would possibly miss most if he quits, one Liberian Journalist said “the Mansion.” There is a story in Monrovia that when Doe moved into the mansion in 1980 and had his first taste of the State House breakfast, he smiled at his wife and said: “Nancy, we never gonna leave this place.” Now he may have to hurry out.

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