© JUNGE FREIHEIT Verlag GmbH & Co.  www.jungefreiheit.de    42/01 16. Oktober 2001

„Freedom for some people means slavery for others“
Talking point: Indian writer Suzanna Arundhati Roy on the American air raids on Afghanistan, the „twin monsters“ George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden and the fall-out of globalization
by Moritz Schwarz and Silke Lührmann

Ms Roy, the American bombing of Afghanistan began yesterday evening. Does this confirm what you have feared?

Roy: Of course. It confirms one’s worst fears. America and its Allies are hurtling down the worst, unwisest, least thought-out route of all.

How should America have reacted?

Roy: What happened on September 11th was unjustifiable. But that does not mean that no effort should be made to try and understand why it happened, if only to prevent it from happening again. Trying to understand something is not the same as excusing it or justifying it. In some strange and terrible way, September 11th gave America the chance to prove that it is a real super- power. By that I mean that it had a chance to prove that it was a wise and great country, capable of being firm, but also capable of frank introspection. America, or I should say the U.S. government, is not alone in having made some terrible mistakes in the past. Yet because it is such a powerful, mighty state, its mistakes are also powerful and mighty - and have had and will have terrible consequences. But right now, in its rage, America is reacting - flailing out - wildly. The new war is being called a „global“ war. We have an „international coalition against terror“- this is because America often tends to confuse its own identity with that of the whole world; it thinks it is the world. This is by no means a global war - nor is the „coalition“ an „international“ one. There are dozens of countries and millions of people in the world that want to have nothing to do with George Bush or the Taliban because they are both in their own ways monstrous. The „international“ coalition is a group of the world’s richest countries, who between them manufacture almost all of the world’s weapons and have in their recent histories visited unimaginable terror upon the people of the world. The „evidence“ that links Osama bin Laden and the Al Quaida to the attacks is being kept secret from most countries - yet they are being asked for military and moral support. One of the only reasonable things that the Taliban has ever done is to ask to see the evidence against Bin Laden. This courtesy has not been extended to them. George Bush says his demand for bin Laden is „non-negotiable“.

How would the U.S. have reacted to demands for the extradition of one of its cititzens?

Roy: Reverse the situation and ask how the U.S. government would have reacted if it were asked to extradite one of its citizens without evidence! Now of course we are way beyond the stage of any kind of dialogue. War has its own logic and momentum that will play itself out, and we’ll forget why it’s being fought in the first place. Each side will raise the stakes - now, even if he didn’t personally plan the attacks, it is in bin Laden’s interest to take credit for them - why should he turn down the opportunity to be the Man Who Changed the World? Meanwhile American mainstream media - its famous „free press“ - has blocked out any informed debate or discussion. Anybody who has a dissenting opinion just gets blanked out. It has behaved more or less like the propaganda wing of the U.S. government. In the past, the people of America have shown themselves to be capable of great deal of thought, of a great deal of humility and a courageous ability to disagree with their government. I am thinking of the protests against the Vietnam War. Even today there are many Americans who are expressing brave and brilliant arguments against their government. But informed analysis and debate is being blocked in the mainstream media. And people, after all, are products of the information they receive. At this point of time ordinary Americans are being treated like guinea pigs in a controlled laboratory experiment. With the information that they have, you cannot blame them if 90 per cent of them want to go to war. America is a strange place - you have a curiously insular people who are governed by a pathologically promiscuous government that interferes in everybody else’s affairs.

Your essay „The Algebra of Infinite Justice“ criticizes the American logic of war: Are the U.S. fighting a war whose cause they have constructed in the mind - are they fighting a virtual war?

Roy: Of course it’s a real war. People are dying. But it’s an old-fashioned war that is only going to strengthen a new-fashioned enemy. After September 11th we should have learned that the world has moved into a new phase. Our understanding of everything - of human nature itself - must change now. Because everything we are and have done - our art, music, logic, technology - is based on the fact that human beings have a biological and instinctive desire to live. They want to survive. They want to be remembered. If that changes, and life becomes so worthless that death is more valuable, then we are in a seriously different place. To even begin to understand that, you have to stay very still. You have to shut out the noise and think. You have to try and understand what made things go so terribly wrong. Can they be corrected? What would be the best thing to do? Right now we desperately need wisdom. Not guns. Not cowboys.

In your essay you speak of the means by which the U.S. not only „invites“ but „coerces ... countries to actively participate in its almost godlike mission“ against terrorism.

Roy: Before America places itself at the helm of this „international coalition against terror“, we have to ask some very simple questions. The new war was called „Operation Infinite Justice“, and then changed to „Enduring Freedom“. But a lot of us in the Third World want to know, infinite justice for whom? Enduring freedom for whom? Because in our experience infinite justice for some means infinite injustice for others. Enduring freedom for some people means enduring slavery for others. You see, the history of war should have taught us by now that you can wipe out people, but you cannot wipe out feelings, their collective memory, their pride, and their humiliation. The freedom of speech, the freedom to disagree and the freedom to have your own religion - that’s one side of America; but the freedom to humiliate, the freedom to enslave, the freedom to grind people into a pulp - that’s another side. The freedom to use your power and money to interfere in a complex society without thinking of what the consequences of your actions will be. There is no society which is perfect. Supposing America wasn’t such a rich and powerful country, and Germany or India decided to arm the American right-wing militias because we disagreed with the US government, or say we armed all the black people who have been subjected to racism, and egged them on to outright war. Or say America decided that it would arm and train all Muslims in India because they are being pushed to the wall by the right-wing Hindu government. What would happen? You cannot create an egalitarian society by pressing a button or giving people guns and money. This is what America has done to Pakistan and America and Russia did to Afghanistan. Be-tween them they supplied billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry to all the Afghan warlords. A society has to evolve, democracy has to evolve, people who are oppressed have to go through their own process of fighting for their rights. No one from outside can come and interfere and move people around like pawns on a chessboard. America has done this all over the world. In the 1980’s they did it by arming and training the mujaheddin who fought their way to power from the South towards the North in Afghanistan - and now the Americans are reversing the process - arming the Nothern Alliance who are moving from the North towards the South.

This is the reason why you said terrorism is the symptom not the disease?

Roy: When India did its nuclear tests in 1998, I wrote an article called „The End of Imagination“. I said that to justify having nuclear bombs by saying that you need them as „deterrence“ is a big mistake. Because the theory of deterrence presumes that you have a sophisticated understanding of the psychology of your enemy and it presumes that your enemy is deterred by the things you are deterred by, which is annihilation. But what if they aren’t, what if they are suicide bombers? Terrorism is the chilling, inevitable, logical answer to the nuclear option. Because governments that have nuclear bombs are in a way terrorist states. They survive, they do business, they make their „deals“ by threatening the world, sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, with the terror they can unleash. And non-state terrorism, i.e. „private“ terrorism cannot be squashed by state terrorism, simply because it is an uncontrolled rage caused by state terrorism. And that rage cannot be bombed or shot away. It can only be defused with persuasion. However hard or humiliating an option that might be, it is the only one. If it is going to be ignored or set aside, we should all brace ourselves for the terror still to come. Also, if governments are against terrorism, they must show themselves to be amenable to other non-violent, democratic means of protest. They must show that they are alert to initial signs of distress. But they are not. In India we have non-violent movements that have been saying, and saying, and saying the same thing year after year. Nobody pays any attention. But if you go and hijack a plane or blow up a building, then everybody stops and pays attention. So, what's the message that governments are giving out? To pay so much attention to terror, to retaliate to a terrorist act by declaring a war - a war that might end up being a world war - is to endorse the act. In a horrible way, it gives those that perpetrated the act exactly what they want. You can be sure that terrorists all over the world are licking their chops thinking: One fantastically planned operation is all it takes to have all the television stations in the world broadcasting our message twenty-four hours a day. Oh Man! That’s worth dying for! The wisest way to retaliate to the horror would be to try and re-imagine beauty - because that is what the world has lost. The ugliness of bin Laden and the ugliness of George Bush have taken over our lives. We don’t have to choose between them. They are two ends of the spectrum. All the splendour of human civilization - our music, our art, our literature - lies somewhere in between. We do not have to make a choice. But if war closes in on us, we will be forced to - and if it comes to that, my guess is that the world will divide itself up in surprising ways.

So what is the matter with the U.S. - are they hypocrites or are they naive?

Roy: This is a question I keep on asking myself … underneath the cowboy rhetoric of the U.S. government there’s a deep, manipulative cynicism. But the ordinary people, as I’ve said, are un-informed. So if I had to choose between „hypocrite“ and „naïve“ - for the people I’d choose „naïve“. It’s funny - in a poor country like India, people, however poor they are, in a situation like this seem to be better informed than the average American about what happens in the world. Read the papers here - every strand of opinion is reflected. When India did its nuclear tests we had the same atmosphere of screaming jingoism that is prevailing in America today, yet major news magazines had the courage to disagree with the government’s position. Two mainstream magazines published „The End of Imagination“ simultaneously as their cover story without thinking about their marketing and their circulation figures. In India we watch television and wonder about American citizens: How can they be taken in by it all? The people in America are so rich, so privileged, yet at the same time so insular and protected from violence, that they play with it in their films and fantasy because they have not really felt it. They felt it only outside, when they sent their men to Vietnam and got them back in body bags. But in their homes and hearts they never felt it, while all of us have lived with it for years and years.

The problem seems to be that the U.S. interpret their global military engagement as a kind of self-defense.

Roy: How does America justify all the acts it has done as self-defense? Was Vietnam self-defense?

The U.S. seem to consider themselves globally responsible for freedom and democracy, which enables them to justify interventions anywhere in the world.

Roy: That is complete nonsense. They have supported so many despots and dictators that one has nearly lost count. Even Saddam Hussein they supported, supplying him with arms when he was murdering the Kurds - they had that famous line about Saddam: „He’s a son-of-a bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch“. It’s only when the despots that the U.S. creates begin to get a little out of hand, when they stop doing what they’re told that they lose they reputations. It's the same story - Indonesia, Latin America, Saudi Arabia. In Pakistan the US has supported several military dictators. In fact for the most part I’d say, historically the U.S. government prefers despots. Because all the drilling for oil and the mining and damming - all the selling of weapons and positioning of military bases is a little dicey with democracies - placating a single despotic ruler is easier than placating a whole unruly mass of voters. So they support dictators, and when the dictators don’t do what they are told to do, they call them „fascists“ or „dictators“! America’s sanctions against Iraq are supposedly because Saddam Hussein is a dictator - and he is inarguably a dictator, and a very unpleasant one - but how can the US justify the fact that 500.000 children in Iraq died because of the sanctions? They say, people are responsible for their government. But if you reverse that logic there’s an outcry - and everybody yells „moral relativism“, which is the new mantra these days. But moral relativism is what all wars are about. People who belong to a democracy should be even more responsible for their government than people who have a dictatorship inflicted on them, don’t you think? But here again we come back to the business of information. Of course people in America could, if they wanted to, look up the web, which has become the wonderful, magical home for dissent and the „alternative“ view. But the average American in, say, Milwaukee or Connecticut comes home from a hard day’s work, puts on the TV and gets fed this propaganda, has a beer, and then says, „Let‘s kill the bastards!“. Can you blame him?

So on September 11th 5,000 politically guilty people died?

Roy: Of course they’re not guilty - but neither were all the people who died in all of America’s old wars and retaliatory „terrorist“ strikes, nor are the civilians of Iraq. The point is: „What is terrorism?“- can anybody answer this question? They say terrorism is the killing of innocent people. Isn’t war that too?

Although many innocent people may die, in war you are supposed to kill soldiers, not civilians.

Roy: That is not the reality.

But that is the idea.

Roy: Not in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not in Iraq. Not in East Timor …

Nor in Dresden, that is true.

Roy: I think it is very important to understand what terrorism is. The U.S. Government says it wants a coalition against terrorism. When the U.S. supported, financed, and armed the mujaheddin in the 1980’s, to the Soviet-backed government they were terrorists. The U.S. ally Pakistan had, and continues to have, terrorist-camps all over the country and sends terrorists to Kashmir. India calls these people terrorists, Pakistan calls them freedom-fighters. India condemns terrorism, but India itself trained the LTTE - who currently terrorize Sri Lanka. The Indian government trained the LTTE, and then suddenly did a political volte-face and sent the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) into Sri Lanka. Let’s not forget that the Indian Prime-minister Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by a LTTE suicide-bomber. It’s very dangerous for governments to toy with these huge, raging human emotions. It’s important to face up to past mistakes. Many states are and have been involved in the business of terrorism. It is necessary right now for everybody to honestly say, „All of us have done this kind of thing, let’s move ahead with at least a basic degree of honesty“. If not, let’s just drop the piousness and the morality and be honest about what a brutal, grotesque race we are and go ahead with our grotesque brutal wars without giving them biblical names.

So does terrorism exist or is terrorism just a point of view?

Roy: I have been involved in the protests against big dams in India. In the last 50 years 33 million people in India have been displaced by big dams - the poorest people. For 15 years there has been a wonderful non-violent people’s resistance movement, full of song and dance and beauty. But nobody cares, nobody listens! If tomorrow the displaced people started picking up guns, everybody would say they are terrorists. If those in power do not value non-violence, then by default, they privilege violence.

So the West does not only arm tomorrow’s terrorists, it forces this solution on the rest of the world because it does not understand any form of peaceful protest?

Roy: Absolutely! That is the fundamental issue! The deification, the absolute awe in which the cult of violence is held everywhere in the world - that is the main issue.

Terrorism is a product of a lack of political participation?

Roy: Yes, it is a result of a process of political exclusion. Islamic fundamentalism has come up to occupy the vacuum that was left by the failure of the left. After the break-up of the Soviet Union we have had a unipolar world and the outbreak of this galloping corporate globalization. Having a unipolar world - whatever the dominant „ism“ - is not sustainable; it's like having a government without an opposition. It doesn't matter what the ideology is - communism, capitalism, whatever - without an opposition it becomes a dictatorship. Eventually something - or someone - has to come along and challenge its authority. That is inevitable. Today the monster of capitalism is being challenged by the monster of religious fundamentalism. But there’s a lesson here - a fundamental rule that we should have learned by now never to break : Whatever the provocation, never, never resort to yoking religion to politics. True, it’s the easiest way to get the quickest results, but once it’s out of the box, there’s no putting it back. In India this mixing of religion and politics happened during the freedom struggle - it eventually lead to the massacre of more than a million people when the country was partitioned, and religious fundamentalism is the biggest threat to the country today. The BJP and its „goon“ squads the Bajrang Dal and the VHP have been responsible for several terrorist acts - the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, the murder of Christian missionaries, the desecration of churches - how terrible it is to watch them claiming to be „victims“ of terrorism now. The U.S. tried to whip up Islamic fundamentalism in its effort to dismantle the Soviet Union. It has created a poisonous cesspit in the sub-continent. The Indian government is now supporting the U.S attack on Afghanistan. But the Indian government has its own agenda, which is a very right-wing Hindu agenda. They see it is an opportunity to crack down on Muslims all over the place. All that has already begun and it’s a complete nightmare for us, for everybody who does not believe in this kind of Hindu fundamentalism. Once you let religious fundamentalism out of the box, you can’t put it back. And of course what this means is that the oppressed „minorities“ - whoever they are, and whichever their religion - become shriller and shriller, and more and more unreasonable because they have no other means of protecting themselves. And when they have been pushed until they can go no further, and when their rage is complete, then the people of the world end up paying the price for the blindness and stupidity of their governments.

You have described terrorism as a product of social and political injustice. But isn’t terrorism a product of cultural clashes too? Because Osama bin Laden does not refer to social issues, but to cultural issues?

Roy: What is left for a person or a culture that has been stripped of everything? Who are the Taliban? They are people who stone women to death and bury them alive because they do not know what women are. They did not have mothers, because most of their parents were killed in the war and they have grown up without families. One and a half million Afghans were killed in the civil war … the oldest Taliban leaders are about 40 years old. Several of them are maimed - they've lost an eye, or an arm, or a leg. The have grown up and lived in a world of stone and ash and heroin. Everything in their world is broken and stripped, and the monster in them comes out and it rages and rages. And it doesn’t matter what the monster is saying, whether it is saying that theirs is a cultural, economic or political or religious protest. It's just a screaming. A raging. It's important to defuse that rage - not to fuel it. Because the rage is infinitely destructive.

The Muslims consider the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to be an insult against Islam. Yet this is not noticed by the West. Isn’t that a problem, that the West is not only socially unjust, but culturally arrogant to other civillisations?

Roy: Sometimes when you become extremely powerful, omnipotent, you step on things, you break them and you don’t even hear the crunch. Some of the stray things that one hears (and even someone like me) cause such fury, I can feel my mind closing down, doing the intellectual equivalent of clenching my fist. To hear George Bush say that he doesn’t want his two-million-dollar cruise missile to only hit a five-dollar hut or a ten-dollar camel’s butt - to see TV anchors smirk about that - don’t they realize that in that five-dollar hut there could be a sleeping family whose lives are just as precious as any American family? Or that the ten-dollar camel’s butt may be the only means of livelihood for somebody? What’s the trade-off? How valuable does the real estate have to be to make the cruise missile a decent investment? But eventually it isn’t the logic of what he’s saying, it’s his utter contempt for the poor that takes one’s breath away, which is the key to the way the US Government has conducted its affairs in the world. This is what leads to the fury. To hear that 37,000 „food kits“ are being dropped (largely as a PR exercise) and that they contain peanut butter and bread and plastic cutlery and a serviette! (No wine and table-cloth?) And to know that aid agencies are asking that they not be dropped because hungry people run out to get them and run the risk of being blown up by land mines - how can anyone bear the humiliation? Even if they are starving and they need the food and they eat the food - can they ever forget the humiliation? Reverse the scenario. If tomorrow Afghanistan were to bomb the United States of America. And if they say, we are only against the U.S. government, not the American people. So here are the bombs - sorry if you get hurt - and here’s some naan and kebab. What would American citizens feel, even if they needed the bread? They would feel like beggars. Like servants. This is America’s arrogance. It is so full of itself - it wants to be the good guy and the bad guy - it wants to represent the whole world, it wants to meddle in everybody's affairs … The issue is, not who is right and who is wrong, but how much space can you take up? You own everything, you hog the world’s resources, you own the media, you have a massive pile of weapons. To take that on, to challenge that - it cannot be challenged with reason, only with un-reason. That is why the Taliban challenges it, because the Taliban has journeyed over the edge, from reason to unreason. To insane, suicidal defiance. India couldn’t challenge it, nor Pakistan, nor Indonesia, not Mexico … because all of us exist on scraps of hope.

You called Osama bin Laden „the dark side of civilization“ and the „dark twin of George W. Bush"?

Roy: They are like twins, representing two extreme ends of civilization, and only they can challenge each other, the rest of the world is in between. One is made from the waste created by the other.

What is the role of globalization in this conflict?

Roy: Its role is tremendous. After the fall of the Soviet Union, America became a unipolar power. It has no opposition, and that is a terrible thing for anything, whether it is communism, capitalism or Islam. Anything that does not have an opposition, anything that can run wild, becomes monstrous. And that is what globalisation has done, it‘s gone berserk. For example, an American company called ENRON came to India to set up a power plant. ENRON has the entire American administration - from the President down - backing it. ENRON signed a bizarre, one-sided contract by „educating“ politicians with huge amounts of money. Today, the electricity that ENRON produces is so expensive that nobody can afford it. So even though nobody buys its electricity, according to the contract, the government still has to pay ENRON an amount which is equivalent to 60 percent of India’s entire rural development budget. People have been protesting against it for years and years. No one listens. This is how you slowly strip a society of its dignity, its infrastructure, its productivity, its initiative. And what remains behind is only monstrosity.

The threat of globalization lies not in the vanishing of different cultures, but in the unipolar system?

Roy: The vanishing of cultures leads to a unipolar system.

What is the role of the cultures of the world and what is their fate?

Roy: Recently, after watching the way the American media has behaved towards this world, I see that in India there is so much hope, so much room for dissent. It is a terrible place in many ways, but there is real intellectual resistance. There are views of every kind being expressed, and that is a wonderful thing. Each of us who protests, who disagrees, who insists on another way of seeing, is a brick in the wall of democracy. India's poverty and chaos leaves a lot of place for dissent.

Your essay was published in India and all over Europe. What was the reaction?

Roy: The reaction was tremendous, especially in Germany and Britain. A lot of the reactions I received were positive. I think a lot of people just didn’t know these facts. The difference is that it echoes the view of most people in India, but in Europe it is a rather an unusual view, because it is against the main-stream view. It just goes to show how deeply divided the world really is. What is interesting is that the essay was not published in the U.S. at all …

Germany’s most well-known news presenter quoted some sentences from your essay and declared himself in favour of it. He faced very strong negative reactions, some politicians demanded he step down.

Roy: Why? - That’s sad …

It was said that it is permitted for Ms Roy to say that but not for a German news presenter.

Roy: What is the matter with Germany, why is there something that I am allowed to say, but not your news presenter? Is everybody supposed to have a flag flying in their heads? I said what I said as a citizen of the world. Not as an Indian. I thought Germany was a free country!

The German government shares the US interpretation of a „struggle for freedom" completely, they are vicious on criticizing America and follow the U.S. politically and militarily without any doubt.

Roy: That is the threat of unipolar monstrosity. But to be honest, if the Indian government had the chance, they would do that too. They are doing that. But fortunately the U.S. doesn’t seem to want their help.

Ms Roy, do you feel as an political author?

Roy: I consider myself an author and for me everything, from the colour of the moon in the river to what America is doing in Afghanistan or what bin Laden is supposed to have done in New York, is connected. I do not acknowledge the boundaries of what is political, and what is not political. My mind connects them all. I need to protect beauty and love and magic, as much as I need to abhor violence and war.

Is there something like a political essence in your writing?

Roy: I think my book „The God of Small Things“ is a very political book. My new book of collected essays is coming out now in India. I suppose publishers would call it non-fiction. I don’t see much difference between fiction and non-fiction, both are attempts to understand the world. For me fiction is truth. I think only publishers make this artificial distinction.

Would you say you were part of India’s culture or of Western culture?

Roy:I don’t think in terms of countries. Anything I agree with or that I find beauty in is part of me. There is much of the West I find beautiful and I appreciate, and there is much that is terrible and violent. Same with India, there is great beauty and terror.

You wrote two essays on Phoolan Devi. Why? Did you know that Phoolan Devi has become a new symbol of India in the West?

Roy: I don’t think that she is a symbol for India. I think her story has been confected and made to become what people want it to be. Its been a sad, cynical exercise. The beauty of India is that it is far to complex to have one symbol.

Do you feel in any way responsible as the „voice of India“? Do you feel called upon to speak for India?

Roy: I’m not the „voice of India“. People here would be furious if they heard you suggest that! I’m routinely trashed for my opinions! But to answer your question, I try not to feel too responsible, because feeling responsible is also a way of giving yourself a lot of importance. I never want to lose my sense of freedom and my ability to feel irresponsible. But of course sometimes, when things like what happened in New York and what is happening now in Afghanistan happen, you want to scream. And at least I can scream and I am heard (and then usually ignored). It is very easy for President Bush and his supporters in Germany and all over the world to declare, „This is an attack on freedom and democracy“. But it is’t - and somebody has to say this - it is just another world trying to say, „Look! We exist! We have rights! Give us some space!“ Listen to them before it's too late.


Suzanna Arundhati Roy was born in Bengal in 1959 and now lives in New Delhi. She studied architecture, worked as an aerobics instructor, and tried her hand at writing film scripts. 

In 1996, she published her novel „The God of Small Things“, which won the Booker Prize and made her an instant star on the Indian cultural scene, although in India her story of a woman‘s love for an untouchable was censored on moral grounds. Since 1998, Roy has been involved in the protests against nuclear testing in India. She currently faces a six-month prison term for her involvement in demonstrations against the Indian government‘s dam-building project. 

As well as publishing two essays on the exploitation of Phoolan Devi’s life story, Roy was one of the earliest voices that spoke out against globalization. In the wake of the American administration’s and media‘s unreflected reaction to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Roy wrote an essay („The Algebra of Infinite Justice“, The Guardian, September 29) which precisely outlines the dilemma with which the rest of the world is now faced: „The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can‘t very well return without having fought one. If it doesn‘t find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one. Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own and we‘ll lose sight of why it’s being fought in the first place.“

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