The first thing that you notice after crossing the border from Burkina into the Cote D’Ivoire is the roadblock straight in front of you. It is of a style, solidity and professionalism that puts the efforts of the Burkina police to shame. Indeed not even in the war-torn Casamance region of Senegal had we seen such an impressive barrier. Most roadblocks in this part of the world consist of a couple of empty oil drums taking up half the road or, at worst, a board studded with bent old rusty nails lying on the tarmac; roadblocks that are effective in a psychological sense rather than physical. This was altogether a different story.

The bulk of the barrier consisted of a thick jumble of scrap metal. Car parts, twisted railings, battered containers, all bolstered by blocks of rubble. A small section in the middle of the road was clear, roughly wide enough to allow a bus to pass through. This gap was protected by an ingenious device which, although obviously based on the nail-studded plank, bore the same relation to that primitive item as a cannon does to a catapult. The base of this iron marvel was flat, 6 inches wide and perhaps 8 feet long, with dozens of metal spikes, each several inches long, welded to it. This base was mounted, about an inch above the ground, on 4 small rubber wheels, allowing it to be easily wheeled away from the gap to allow vehicles to pass through. At one end of the base, a hinged handle, four feet long with a molded plastic hand grip on one end, allowed the attendant soldier to move the barrier without having to stoop or otherwise inconvenience himself in the slightest. This was obviously a country where road blocking is taken very seriously indeed.

Cote D’Ivoire route taken, April 2000, full map

Within 100 metres of the border there were no less than 5 separate barriers, each equally impressive in terms of solidity and technological innovation. Although they each sported signs claiming to be operated by different authorities: police, gendarmes, customs, forestry police and national police, in fact the gentlemen manning them all looked to be wearing suspiciously similar uniforms, not unlike the khaki and camouflage outfit that is traditionally associated with the humble soldier. However, despite some threatening toting of machine-guns, we passed through these barriers without too much trouble; our driver exchanged a few words with the soldiers, while the 4 passengers remained unperturbed in the car. Overall these 5 roadblocks held us up for barely 20 minutes and we sped on towards Ouangaladougou, the first town in Cote D’Ivoire.

There we had to change vehicles, since the Peugeot 504 which we were in was returning to Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina. We quickly found a minivan which was continuing to our destination, Bouake, Cote D’Ivoire’s second city. It was still before noon and we had completed almost half of our trip, including the potentially difficult border-crossing, in little over 2 hours and would certainly have completed the remaining distance of good-quality, hard-surfaced road well before sundown, had it not been for the incessant roadblocks which infested the road like a plague. Every town of any size had a roadblock on entry and one on exit. In addition, there were roadblocks at random intervals in between towns. Each one was manned by a half-dozen soldiers or so and necessitated lengthy delays of anything from 10 minutes to one hour, before the ‘spikes-on-wheels’ were rolled out of the way and we were allowed to pass.

The drill went something like this. Soldier waves us to halt. Soldier leisurely saunters up to van several minutes later and asks everybody to show him their identity papers. Soldier receives papers from the 20 occupants of the van, inspects them, hands about 15 back and puts the other 5 in his pocket. Soldier walks off. The 5 unlucky people then follow the soldier to his post and haggle over the size of ‘present’ which they will have to cough up to get their papers back. Meanwhile everybody else gets out of the van and hangs around by the roadside, complaining bitterly about the rapacity of the soldiers. After a variable period of time the unfortunate passengers return, having paid about $2 each, and we carry on.

This routine had a number of variations. On one occasion a soldier took the papers relating to the vehicle instead of individuals’ papers. This seemed to have been particularly expensive since the driver remained in heated argument for some time, causing a delay of about one hour. On two separate occasions, passengers whose papers had been confiscated failed to return to the van and we continued with a lighter load. Some of the passengers had to buy their IDs back on several different occasions, making the journey extremely expensive for them. We later deduced that these were Burkinabe immigrants. For our part, although our passports were scrutinised closely, they were always handed back directly after inspection.

While these numerous delays, which added at least 3 hours to our journey, did mean that we again failed to arrive in an unknown metropolis before dark, at least they gave us the opportunity to closely observe the landscape which changed dramatically as we went South towards the coast. The Northern extremity of the country was practically indistinguishable from the Sahel lands of Burkina; dry, dusty with little or no vegetation growing save for the scattered dry-land trees and bushes. Within a few hundred kilometres these savannah lands, parched by the long dry season, are replaced by the beginnings of the tropical rainforest belt, perennially green and fertile. A struggle against the arid environment is replaced by a struggle for existence amongst the plants themselves, filling every space, sprouting leaves upwards and outwards in a race to catch every drop of sunlight. The changes in the land and climate are also visible in the human and man-made landscape. In the villages concrete structures become much more common. On the roads, cars are more numerous and newer. At the roadside, the vendors’ fruit is larger, juicier, more abundant and cheaper. Exotic wares appear like trays full of live, squirming giant forest-snails, each twice the size of a human fist, with which women try to entice hungry travelers. At the roadblocks, the soldiers have large, expensive motorbikes of a type unknown further North. In general distended bellies become less common and the sense of desperate poverty diminishes slightly.


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General Robert Guei

Almost exactly 100 days before we arrived in the country, a new government had been put in place, the national committee of public salvation (CNSP), headed by general Robert Guei, following his Christmas eve coup. The military takeover was a consequence of the dynastic war of succession that had been raging, on and off, since the death in December 1993 of Felix Houphouet-Boigny who had ruled since independence in 1960. His godson Bedie, the speaker of parliament, succeeded in getting his hands on the reins of power ahead of the prime-minister, Ouattara. This squabble for power was based on no ideological or political differences, it was a pure lust for power, where clientelist networks, emphasising regional and ethnic differences, were constructed as a means of clinging to power. Bedie invented the concept of ‘Ivorite’, meaning a pure Ivorian nationality – both parents being provably Ivorian, to disqualify Ouattara from the elections scheduled for 2000. The absurdity of this concept, in a country of purely artificial construction, where many of the population don’t even know the exact date of their birth, never mind being able to produce birth-certificates for both parents, is hard to overstate. Furthermore, the Ivorian economy has long been underwritten by large quantities of immigrant labour from the impoverished sahelian states to the North. The French used Burkina as a reservoir of labour to work the plantations of the more productive coastal regions and even today as much as a quarter of the population were born in Burkina, Mali, Guinea or another neighbouring state.

The clientelist network that Bedie was using, to retain power and simultaneously enrich himself, is well known in Africa, from Liberia to Nigeria, and has been at the root of many of the continent’s disasters in supposedly democratic regimes. For this region Guei’s coup was overwhelmingly welcomed, not only in Cote D’Ivoire, but also all across the region. In Senegal, Mali and Burkina, we repeatedly came across expressions of support for Robert Guei. However, unfortunately, Africa’s history does not lend weight to the idea that military takeovers, however well-meaning, can provide any positive alternative to venal and power hungry politicians. Ominously, Guei postponed the referendum on a transition to a new civilian administration and refused to declare his intentions on a candidacy for the promised elections, leaving one to fear that he might be becoming a little fond of power, despite his early intentions. Worse still, he seemed to be re-inventing the concept of Ivorite, under the guise of eliminating forged Identity cards.

We constantly got the impression of an extremely authoritarian and over-bearing security apparatus in Cote D’Ivoire while we were there, although this appeared to be an ingrained culture rather than a new development since the coup. In contrast to the countries which we had come through, dread locks and other signs of youthful rebellion were almost invisible, men having uniformly short cropped hair. We were informed that this was due to unrelenting harassment of those who showed signs of any ‘rasta’ sympathies, by the police and military. One young man told us of a time when a new youth hairdo had come into fashion based on an American ‘rap’ haircut, shaved at the sides and allowed to grow long in tufts on top. The fashion had come to an abrupt end when the police rounded up all those sporting the new style and publicly shaved them, using pocket-knives.

Now with the soldiers firmly in control of the country, there was nothing to stop the full expression of this mentality which, in classic military style sees the major problems of the country as stemming from laxness and indiscipline. The sight of Guei and his ministers addressing the press, decked out in khaki fatigues, made one feel that they were just about to give the population a damned good dressing down, with a few circuits of the assault course thrown in as penance for their sloppiness in allowing the economy to reach such a state. The young mutineers, whose taking of Abidjan’s armoury had been the first act of the coup, retained total impunity. When a national newspaper displeased them, they invaded its offices and forced the offending journalists to do press-ups as punishment. The junta’s approach to crime was another example of their ‘no nonsense’ approach. Even before we arrived in the country we had been hearing persistent stories about the summary executions carried out by the security services against lawbreakers, especially thieves. This policy seemed to meet with widespread approval by the public and indeed General Guei, in response to criticism from the dismissed elected parliament, boasted publicly that his administration “had killed 66 bandits in its first 3 months as against 33 in the previous 3”. However this public approval was starting to become strained; a few days before we arrived in Bouake, there had been riots by students after a drunken soldier had shot a student, apparently thinking that the student was harassing a girl, who was in fact his girlfriend.

Even if the junta had wished to control the excesses of the army, it would have been difficult since the junior ranks were conscious that they had toppled the old government and could easily topple this one in turn. The fact that the country’s coffers were reportedly empty upon the takeover meant that, in lieu of being able to give them money, the army had to be given a free hand to extort cash from the hapless populace. This systematic racket was not only practiced on the major inter-urban roads, which we had seen on entering the country. In Bouake there were several checkpoints where taxis were stopped and we often saw pedestrians being randomly asked to produce papers in the working class areas of the cities. There seems to be a vast array of documentation which they must carry with them at all times, lest they infringe some law and attract a ‘fine’. National ID, carte de sejour, residency permit, evidence of address and vaccination card among others can be demanded at will. Much of the time the laws seem to be framed in such a way as to render it impossible not to break one of them. For example, foreigners from other West African states are free to visit Cote D’Ivoire, but they must obtain a carte de sejour. However, this cannot be obtained outside the country or at the borders, therefore visitors have no choice but to break the law when they enter the country, at least until they arrive at a major city and complete the lengthy application procedure. Considering the number of checks towards the borders, this is a very expensive law to have to break! Not surprisingly the immigrant workers whom we talked to were extremely pissed off with this situation, and for some of them it meant that they were effectively prevented from travelling outside the city where they dwelled.

It underlines how unpopular the deposed Bedie regime must have been, that 100 days into its reign, the Guei junta still seemed preferable to the independent media, trade-unions, students and all the people we talked to. Even the excesses of the soldiers were generally associated with the ‘state of the country’, a legacy of the old order, rather than the new military regime. Nevertheless Guei’s popularity was always premised on the understanding that he was going to hand power to an elected administration within a short space of time and it is unlikely it will persist is he dallies excessively in handing over, as seems likely.

A view towards the border region with Liberia and Guinea


We decided not to linger excessively in Cote D’Ivoire because heretofore we had been indulging ourselves, dawdling across the continent, seeing three and a half countries in four months (Gambia being the half) when we hoped to reach South Africa within 10 months, across at least 18 countries. Therefore after spending a single night in Bouake we hot-tailed for Man in the rain-forested, mountainous West of the country towards the Liberian border. This region is famed for the singular culture of the indigenous Dan people, which includes such elements as stilted dances and juggling of small girls as well as strikingly sculpted masks, one of which Deirdre was keen to add to our growing collection of West African crafts. The bus trip was uneventful except for the military-extortion stops which we were quite used to at this stage, and the fact that we were travelling on a proper bus meant that the delays were somewhat shorter since the soldiers tend to pick on the cheaper minivans more. Along the way, the plant life continued to increase in density and vigour; massive hardwood trees soaring hundreds of feet into the air, surrounded by thick tangles of jungle harbouring myriad colourful plant and animal life.


Street scene, Man

We spent a few days in Man. The town itself is not especially captivating, although it is notable for having the most appalling streets that I have ever seen. The unpaved surfaces resemble dried-up river beds with channels eroded several feet deep into the mud, the lack of any drainage is quite an oversight in this climate with its frequent tropical downpours. We spent most of our time walking in the spectacular forested hills which completely surround the town. The highlight was the ascent, through lush tropical jungle, of a nearby rocky crag called “Man’s tooth”. The trek was some 15km, up a steep incline, and since, in our ignorance of the great distance, we had obstinately negotiated a very low price with the guide who was showing us the way, he was extremely impatient to get to the top and climbed the hill at a swift jog. The afternoon sun made this a very hard pace to follow and we were thoroughly exhausted well before reaching the summit. Just before the top Deirdre decided that she could go no further and, gallantly not wishing to be a burden, tried to persuade us to leave her there to die on the mountainside. Notwithstanding the nobility of her gesture, I declined to leave her there and eventually managed to pester her into completing the last, steep section. It was worth the effort since from the bare rocky top there was a splendidly clear view over the town and, in the opposite direction, over vast expanses of untouched mountainous rainforest, stretching towards the Liberian and Guinean borders. We released our guide, who set off at a sprint down the hill, so we could make it back at our own pace. After lying prostate on the mountain top for a good hour, we slowly retraced our steps back down the mountain, pausing repeatedly to take pictures of each other in ‘jungle explorer’ guise, heads poking out of the tropical vegetation. Several hours later, as dusk was falling, we arrived back at the town, drenched with sweat and parched with thirst since we had only brought 1.5 litres of water on the walk between us, which we had finished well before reaching the top. Happily the Ivorian geniuses have developed the fabulous concept of litre bottles of beer, served ice-cold, which we duly quaffed in the first bar we found.

When we finally arrived back at our hotel, we were surprised to be asked, by the manager, to fill in registration forms. These forms are ubiquitous in West African hotels. Before staying the night, every guest must fill them out, detailing their personal data, home address, passport number and various other pieces of information that the government decides it must know. On this occasion we were surprised at the request since we had already filled out a card three days earlier, immediately after arriving. When we queried the manager about this he explained that a soldier had come to the hotel that morning to collect all the completed registration forms. As usual, we had only filled out a single form between the two of us, and when the soldier saw this card, which I had filled out, he had immediately asked the manager: “what about the woman who is with him? where is her card?” Thus we now had to each fill in separate cards. The fact that we had been monitored in such a way after only two days in this large town, of some 150,000 inhabitants, made us a little uncomfortable. It also troubled two other guests who happened to be in the hotel lobby at the same time, but for different reasons. They complained, in shocked tones: “- What, does that mean that we have to fill in cards when we pick up prostitutes? – But that’s an outrage, it amounts to banning hookers, they’ve gone too far this time!”

San Pedro & Sassandra

From Man we continued by bus 400 km South through the remains of rainforest. The giant hardwood trees have mainly fallen victim to the logging industry and what remains is mostly a thick jungle of secondary growth, interspersed by occasional coffee and cocoa plantations. Our destination was the port city of San Pedro, where we were to be happily reunited with the sea, which we had been missing terribly since our departure from Dakar, over 2 months beforehand. Fortunately the military checkpoints were much less common on this stretch of road, perhaps due to the relative lack of foreign workers travelling this route and hence the reduced opportunity to extract bribes. As one approaches the coast, there is a noticeable change in the predominant house-building style in the small villages. Instead of the mud brick walls crowned with a thatch of some variety of grass, wattle and daub walls are used, topped with palm leaves. The numerous unfinished houses in various stages of completion by the road, reveal the construction procedure. First a frame is built, both walls and roof in the shape of the classic house, from thin branches. The gaps in the frame are filled with a mesh of palm leaves which are plastered with mud. Finally the palm-leaf roof is added. This style of housing seems to predominate all along the coast, although bigger and wealthier places use, of course, the ubiquitous concrete and corrugated iron. After 8 hours of jungle with many little hamlets of these huts, we arrived at the coast.

Deirdre happy to see the sea again

Unfortunately the sea at San Pedro is far too rough for bathing, even dipping one’s feet in the sea is potentially life-threatening as violent waves suddenly appear without any warning, crashing over the steep beaches. The town itself is dominated by the port which seems to mainly serve the purpose of exporting the rainforests of the area to feed Europe’s furniture shops. Huge lorries, hauling a single section of a tree-trunk of one of the forest giants, are a common sight, as are stockpiles of planks of cut wood, piled high in yards all around the port. We stayed two days, time enough to stroll through the strangely empty port area, among the massive deserted warehouses and along the steep dangerous beaches, occasionally being soaked by a freak wave. There we met a very nice Nigerian man, a Lagosian, who had lived for 8 months on Dublin’s North wall, the first African we had met who had been to Ireland.

From this large, modern, industrial port city we traveled Eastwards by minivan along the coast to the small quiet fishing town of Sassandra, surrounded by water on all sides, nestling at the foot of low hills between the sea and the mouth of the Sassandra river. This small town was obviously of some importance in colonial times, monumental colonial-era ruins are numerous, including the shell of the governor’s residence, right on the hill at the end of the spit of land projecting into the river-mouth. The ruin of his house today hosts several families who were happy to show us around including the remains of his prison, now derelict. Most of the other remaining colonial houses are inhabited or are used as warehouses, being of a scope and expanse that is completely superfluous in the small scale fishing economy of the modern town. We spent a couple of days relaxing on the beaches, staying in the town’s brothel, a collection of grass huts right on the beach in the centre of town, despite the fact that the sea was still too dangerous to really bathe, the mere presence of that vast body of water was immeasurably soothing after having spent so long in the parched fringes of the Sahara.

Indeed it was more than the presence of large bodies of water that made Cote D’Ivoire a relaxing place to visit. In general creature comforts were much more readily available than in the Sahelian countries. Hotel rooms were more comfortable and cheaper; for the first time in Africa we were able to afford an air-conditioned room, although alas, for a mere two nights. Up to now the food we had been eating had been basic. If you asked for chicken and rice, you’d get a lump of chicken and a lump of rice, with a dollop of Maggi sauce out of a jar if you were lucky. Here, in addition to the imported French cuisine, there was a variety of excellent indigenous dishes, like braised fish or chicken in several fine sauces, or antelope and bush-rat soups with pounded yam, prepared in such a way as to make eating a pleasure rather than a mere necessity for survival. These dishes were available in pleasant open-air bar-restaurants known as ‘maquis’, where $3 or $4 could buy a large meal with ample beer.

The other element that made Cote D’Ivoire a relatively pleasant place to travel in was the almost complete absence of hustlers and the small number of hawkers, who did not tend to be overly persistent in any case. I have no idea why this was the case since, if the country is many times richer that its Northern neighbours, it still has its fair share of poverty, misery and unemployment. The lack of tourists, who were extremely scarce while we were there, can hardly explain it because this is a recent development since the coup and by all accounts tourism was formerly very important to the economy. This pleasant surprise was welcome and we thoroughly enjoyed the fact that we could roam at will without attracting crowds of hustlers by virtue of our status as rich tourists. What’s more, the coastal regions, due to their milder climate, have long harboured a large number of expatriate Europeans, mostly French, and therefore nobody seems in the least interested to see a white person, quite a liberation after spending months as a ‘walking event’. However, even if this had been our impression of the rest of the country, we didn’t expect it to be sustained when we left Sassandra for Abidjan, the country’s major city and French West Africa’s biggest metropolis.


Before arriving in Abidjan, we had heard many bad things about it. Ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in West Africa by our guidebook, apparently muggings are very common. Jonathon, a peace-corp volunteer who we had met in Burkina, had told us of his traumatic arrival in the city. He had emerged from his bus into the midst of a raging argument between bunches of local hustlers which had culminated in one of the hustlers taking his penis out, putting it into his hand and charging his opponent with it! He had spent the rest of his stay, the Christmas holidays, confined indoors while the army mutineers ran riot through the streets, shooting into the air and commandeering cars. It was perhaps not surprising that he didn’t have much good to say about the place.

In approaching the city, it quickly becomes obvious that it is quite different from the rest of the country. The suburbs sprawl for quite some distance, apartment blocks and endless rows of low, corrugated-iron roofed houses line the wide multi-lane highways for several kilometres before one nears the city centre. Buses from the West arrive in the chaotic Adjame motor park. There are a large number of private bus companies, each having their own depot within the hectic maze of the motor park, which also serves as a major hive of commerce as traders try to get the best bargains on produce arriving fresh from the countryside. The internal roads in the massive motor park complex are unpaved and therefore after any rains, the chaos is aggravated by the large mud pools which develop at the most heavily trafficked intersections. What’s more, the roads in the park are narrow and traders’ displays often encroach onto the bus lanes, meaning that buses occasionally come to corners which they can’t circumvent. Things become really difficult when two buses, going in opposite directions, meet at a corner on a narrow track with a mud-pool several feet deep at the corner’s apex.

Once the tortuous journey into the motor park has been completed and the driver has proved his skill, it is the passengers’ turn to run the gauntlet, for the bus is engulfed by ‘helpers’ who follow it from its entry into the park, trying to make eye-contact with the passengers and innocently asking them whether they have any baggage in the hold. Fortunately we were well prepared and had strapped our backpacks firmly on, so that we couldn’t possibly be helped in carrying them. The doors of the bus opened and a mob of youths descended upon the poor old country man who was standing in the doorway, all fighting to try to carry his bags. We seized upon this momentary distraction to make a break for it, jumping off the bus, feinting to go right, then sharply sidestepping to the left and trotting speedily away from the bus. We had come to rest at the edge of the motor park and just beside us, on the road were a fleet of empty taxis waiting to take passengers from the bus. Each taxi had a helper attached, holding the back door open and calling out to us “look I’ve found a taxi for you”, some taxis had even got 2 or 3 helpers hanging on to the door. Yet again we had to rely on sleight of foot to evade the helpers. We headed towards one of the taxis to which a youth was beckoning us, dummied as if to go for the door, shimmied around the taxi and dived head-first into an unattended taxi behind (being the only way to enter a car with a backpack strapped on). We had no time to recover our composure before the car was engulfed with the helpers from the other taxis, joined by the helpers who had been following hot on our heels from the bus. At least six of them started demanding money for having found the taxi, in a rather aggressive manner, and since the taxi driver sympathised much more with their plight than with ours, he was extremely slow in moving off in order to give them as much opportunity as possible to extract a few cents from us. Eventually he did move of, but only after I’d screamed “go driver!!” twice at him, as at that stage things were getting a little tense with the helpers, one of whom was calling me a bastard and when I agreed that I was a bastard, he started making threatening gestures as if he was going to poke my eyes out.

That was the only difficult situation that we had to deal with in Abidjan. The rest of our week-long stay passed without any untoward incidents. Indeed the only problem that we had was the expense of getting around since the city is much too big to walk around and we didn’t have long enough to master the public transport system, so we had to use taxis for most journeys. We stayed in a dingy hotel in the Treichville area, the original ‘African’ area of the city, nowadays the most central of the low-rent neighbourhoods. We spend the week exploring the city and doing all the things that backpackers do when they arrive in a major West African city after spending months ‘in the bush’: getting visas for the next countries, surfing the internet and sending e-mails, eating hamburgers, browsing in bookshops and reading foreign newspapers. For all of these pursuits Abidjan is extremely well equipped.

Just like Dakar, the European city is situated on a peninsula, projecting out into the sea, which surrounds the city on three sides, guaranteeing a relatively mild climate. Again, just like Dakar, this area is known as the ‘plateau’, which is no coincidence as the conscientious colonial town planners considered it very important that the Europeans should occupy the highest points of the city to symbolise their dominance over the indigenous masses. This area is today the central business district, littered with prestige high-rise buildings, many of which have striking modernist designs, notably the cathedral, designed so that the steeple represents a man with outstretched arms and the body of the church is his robe flowing our behind him. The cathedral contains massive stained-glass windows depicting three French missionaries arriving on Africa’s shores to teach the heathen about the gospel. The shore contains heathen natives greeting the missionaries with bowls of fruit and beaming smiles, seemingly converted by the mere sight of these holy white men. Come the revolution in Cote D’Ivoire, I believe that this will be the first window to be smashed.

From a distance the city looks impossibly glamorous; shiny skyscrapers set amongst brilliant blue lagoons lined with palm trees. Yet despite the apparent glitz of the city, there are many signs that the cracks are starting to show and not just in the sprawling slum districts around the city. The economy, largely dominated by French capital and once known as the ‘African miracle’ due to two decades of high growth after independence, is overwhelmingly dependent on two major cash crops, coffee and cocoa. Every issue of every newspaper carries the current market price of these two commodities in prominent position and regularly entire pages are given over to presenting a plethora of facts and figures about the trends of these prices. For some time these prices have been falling, causing cracks to appear in the Ivorian economy, cracks that are mirrored in the buildings of the plateau, which on close inspection look rundown and dilapidated. The pavements too show signs of decline; the trees which were planted along the roadsides have long overgrown their allotted spaces and their roots have spread, destroying the once neat pavements around them, creating undulating hillocks in their place and forcing pedestrians to walk in the mud or on the road as they do in most other African towns.

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