Good Books: Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha (Part Two)

[ Recap of Part One:  In 1876 the new republic of Brazil is faced with a problem in the remote northeast. A mystic preacher  named Antonio the Counselor has gathered a huge following and built a town at Canudos. Other towns claim that bandits from Canudos are robbing them. One town claims that it is threatened with invasion. The state government of Bahia sends a few hundred men who are dispersed after a small skirmish. A second, larger, expedition fares no better. Now the government gets serious and sends thirteen hundred soldiers with artillery and machine guns under the command of Moreira Cesar, a harsh and feared officer. The expedition ends in disaster; two hundred men are  killed, including Moreira Cesar.]

News of the Moreira Cesar expedition’s disaster spread across Brazil via newly strung telegraph lines. First reports indicated a great massacre and it was weeks before the true number of casualties were known. In the meantime, fear spread through Brazil’s cities. At some point, Antonio the Counselor was labelled a royalist; soon it was claimed that he meant to overthrow the republic and restore the emperor. Brazil’s states were discrete units — the wealthy cacao barons of the south were little interested in poorer states like Bahia — but they were united in anti-royalist sentiment. They had reason to be concerned about the possibilty of the government being overthrown; there had been three major revolts in the eight years since Dom Pedro II’s departure. Now the states joined in an effort to end this threat to the republic.

Da Cunha treats this phase of the Canudos War with some amusement, mocking the extravagant reports of the press, though his newspaper reports filed at the time show the same anti-monarchist hysteria as those he quotes. Much later, when da Cunha actually reads some of Antonio’s words, he calls them “innocuous”.

Antonio Conselheiro, sculpture by Mario Cravo

An army was assembled with units from every state. There was a call for enlistments and the president swore to put the entire legislature in uniform, should more troops be required. No effort was to be spared in ending the terror of the revolutionary monarchist, Antonio the Counselor, and his band of savage warriors. The troops gathered in Baía where some showed their republican loyalties by trying to smash the carved royal coat of arms over the custom house doorway. Da Cunha: “Patriotic passion, the truth is, was verging on insanity.”

It is decided that General Arthur Oscar will command the new expedition. He divides his force of more than three thousand and puts part under the command of General Claudio Savaget. Oscar’s plan is to send Savaget around the east and then west to Canudos along the road created by the now dry riverbed of the Vasa Barris. Meanwhile, he will take his force directly north from Monte Santo, but enter Canudos via Mount Favella. This is not exactly a pincer movement since the routes of the two columns converge slightly east of Canudos.[NB: see the map in Part One]

So, in April, General Oscar set out for Monte Santo. His group was almost two thousand men and included artillery, not just the Krupp field guns already seen in the War (four of which were lost on the Moreira Cesar expedition) but also a huge Whitworth 32, a 170mm siege gun that weighed tons. He also had a detachment of engineers that proceeded ahead of the force and actually cleared a road through the bush and up the side of Mount Favella that will accept the traffic, including the Whitworth, that is to follow. (I found myself wondering why the sertanejos didn’t wipe out this lightly armed forward party. Perhaps they only attacked when units came within a certain radius of Canudos. Or perhaps they realized that the road was a marker of the advance and that they could set up positions and wait.)

Whitworth 32 at the Linares Military Museum

General Oscar spends some time drilling his troops and draining the surrounding country of supplies. It is June before his column moves north. General Savaget also spent his downtime training his troops, almost three thousand, and has created a unit of lancers, mounted and lightly armed, to be used as scouts. In June, Savaget also moves toward Canudos.

General Oscar’s group has problems. His soldiers have eaten most of the food in the area so that they are given only half rations for the march. The heavy Whitworth cannot keep up with the troops — at one point, it is twenty-nine miles behind. The rear guard unit is assigned the task of guarding the artillery while it makes its slow progress. Meanwhile, the unit’s supplies, rations and ammunition, follow the rear guard and the cannon. So Oscar commands three separated units moving north into the sertão. General Savaget splits his supply unit into three parts and assigns each to a section of his force. The lancers work very well as scouts and Savaget’s column is not surprised by an enemy attack.

General Oscar’s group runs into a few probes, outbreaks of sniper fire, and small skirmishes that da Cunha suggests were meant to keep the column advancing along a certain line. The sertanejo in command is none other than Pajehú, the unwittingly heroic cafuso. By the time Oscar’s column reaches Mount Favella on June 27, it is under sniper fire which grows ever fiercer, but the troops keep going. Around midday they pass the remains of Moreira Cesar’s expedition:

…bleached shreds of uniforms swaying from the tips of withered branches, and old saddles, and bits of military cloaks and capes scattered over the ground, along with fragments of bones. At the left side of the road, on the bough of a tree — turned into a clothes rack from which hung a weather-beaten uniform — was the decapitated corpse of Colonel Tamarindo, the arms dangling, the skeleton hands clad in black gloves, while at the feet lay the colonel’s cranium and boots. Upon leaving the side of the road and plunging into the weeds, the soldiers come upon the remains of other unfortunate ones: skeletons clad in tattered, filthy uniforms, lying supine here and there in tragic formation or parlously attached to flexible shrubs which, bending with the breeze, conferred upon them the weird movements of specters. All of which had been deliberately staged…

But the column cannot stop because the rifle fire has become serious. They reach the top of Favella, which is crushed by the earth’s martyrdom and somewhat indented so that the troops are marching into a bowl surrounded by a rim of high ground. The sniper fire is now a crescendo, but a couple of the Krupp guns are dragged across the mountaintop and up the slope that overlooks Canudos. Night has fallen. The heavy Whitworth and other artillery are still some distance behind them and the supply train is five miles to the rear. The cannon fire twenty-one shots at Canudos, just for the show of it. General Oscar first sees the town, less than a mile away, through the glare of artillery fire. Suddenly:

…the entire range of slopes from top to bottom burst into running flame and a terrible, deadly rifle fire broke upon them from the hundreds of trenches, as if the ground beneath their feet were exploding with shells.

The slopes of Mount Favella are riddled with rifle pits and the government troops are sitting ducks. They run about in confusion, tripping over wounded comrades, and try to figure out what to do. A blind charge up the hillsides in the dark seems not a good plan and the troops wind up hugging the ground, waiting things out. After an hour or so, the shooting stops. In the dark, the Whitworth and other artillery are brought up the mountainside. What General Oscar has yet to learn is that, at the same time his soldiers were being shot up, the sertanejos attacked the supply train in the rear. Not only is Oscar surrounded by hidden rifle men, there are no supplies, no ammunition, no rations, for his troops.

Meanwhile, the Savaget column, coming around from the northeast along the Vasa Barris river expects and finds contact with the sertanejo forces on June 25 at a place called Cocorobó. This is a rough gap where two gorges formed by the river when it is in flood come together, then open out onto a plain. The sertanejos are waiting in the jumbled rocks overlooking the road and the plain and open up on the troops as they come out of the gap.

…the sertanejos were staging the same rude, sinister,, monotonous drama of which they were the invisible protagonists. No matter how long or arduous their apprenticeship in the art of war, their system never varied, for the reason that, by its very excellence, it admitted of no corrections or additions. From those dismantled parapets, they could fire in safety on our men, who formed a perfect target there on the barren level plain down below….they did not waste their ammunition; they depended not upon quantity but on the accuracy of their aim.

The two forces fire away at one another but it is Savaget’s column that is taking damage. After two hours, a Krupp gun is brought up and trained on the rocks where the sertanejos are dug in. A bombardment of the mountain side results in a lot of rocks being blown up in spectacular fashion but having no other practical result. The gunfire from the sertanejos increases and Savaget is taking serious losses. “This was something very like a defeat,” says da Cunha:

After three hours of fighting, the attackers had not gained one foot of ground. At a distance of five hundred yards from their adversaries, with thousands of eyes fixed upon those barren slopes, they had not caught a glimpse of a single man. There was no telling how many of them there were.

The soldiers could not continue to sit still and be decimated; they had to take action, retreat or attack. Savaget chose to attack. A wild bayonet charge straight up the slopes followed. The sertanejos were surprised and fell back. The soldiers overran some of their trenches. These are empty but the spent rifle casings in them were still warm. The troops continued to charge up the mountain, the sertanejos continued to pick them off. But the government troops persist and eventually force the sertanejos from their trenches and rifle pits. The soldiers catch their first glimpse of the enemy as the sertanejos abandon their positions.

Government soldiers outside Canudos

Government casualties at this point are 178 including General Savaget, who is wounded but continues to command the force. The next day the column fights its way down the road. By nightfall, they have travelled another mile. The following day, the 27th, Savaget’s column is supposed to link up with Oscar’s at Canudos. They push forward under fire. Now they are in the outskirts of Canudos and houses begin to form part of the battleground. The terrain is composed of small hillocks and sertanejo sharpshooters command these little guntowers. Savaget’s troops charge up one hill after another, sometimes finding and killing the enemy, sometimes finding the objective deserted. Then they push on to the next hill. It is exhausting fighting in enormous heat but, by the end of the day, Savaget’s force has reached its goal. Below them they can see the town of Canudos with the new church’s twin steeples glowing white in the sun. As night falls they hear the cannonfire from Oscar’s column which has reached the top of Mount Favella.

The morning of the 28th, Savaget’s group turns its guns on Canudos and watches Mount Favella, expecting to see General Oscar’s troops pouring down the mountainside on the town. Instead, a scout from Oscar’s forces arrives telling Savaget that they are trapped on the mountain and desperately need ammunition and food. Savaget decides that instead of sending a detachment with supplies, he will attack Mount Favella with his entire force. Fairly quickly, he drives away the sertanejos and then sends a group back to rescue Oscar’s supply train. Some of the mules and supplies are recovered and, by the end of the 28th, the entire expedition is ensconced on Mount Favella, overlooking Canudos. Out of a beginning force of almost 5000, there are more than 900 casualties. That night, the sertanejos once again begin firing on the camp.

On the 29th, Oscar’s artillery fires on Canudos. Once again, the result is a massive return fire from the sertanejos. Units scour the hills, trying to root out the riflemen. The sertanejos withdraw, await their chance, and attack or reclaim their rifle pits.

There was here a certain inversion of roles. On the one hand were men equipped for war by all the resources of modern industry, materially strong and brutal, as from the mouths of their cannon they hurled tons of steel at the rebels; and on the other hand, were these rude warriors who opposed to all this the masterly and unfathomable stratagems of the backwoodsman.

That pretty well sums up many guerrilla campaigns throughout history.

The government troops on Mount Favella had to stick it out; a retreat would be a disaster worse than that of the Moreira Cesar expedition. But they were very short on supplies. The rations rescued from the supply train plus what Savaget had left combined for three days’ supply for the entire group. Oscar pinned his hopes on a relief supply train coming to them, but there was none. The oxen that had pulled the great Whitworth up the mountain were slaughtered. The soldiers began spending more time hunting than fighting. A soldier would make his way among the rocks and brush, following the sound of goat bells, only to discover a waiting sertanejo jingling a bell, drawing him in for the kill. The cavalry, on weary, underfed horses — there is no grass atop Mount Favella, only thorns and rocks — the cavalry began rounding up what few cattle they could locate. Through all this came the incessant sniper fire and, suddenly, an all-out attack that would explode in fury for an hour or two, then melt back into cover. Soon the government troops ran low on water. With no relief in sight, by early July, soldiers began to desert.

The situation was desperate when, on the 11th of July, a scout rode into camp to announce that a brigade of reinforcements, more than a thousand men, and a large supply train was two days away. This good news was dampened when the leader of the relief expedition told General Oscar that the base at Monte Santo was more or less nonexistent, no one had bothered to organize it properly, and that this was all the relief that there was. They must attack Canudos or starve where they sit. The generals hashed out a plan. On July 18th, the troops assaulted the town. The plans disintegrated as the troops tried to move into Canudos. Units were broken up by the maze of alleyways between the houses where they tried to take cover. The sertanejos were quite aware that the mud walls would not stop a bullet and fired through them at the huddled troops. At day’s end Oscar’s expedition had suffered a further thousand casualties and was clinging to its hold on the edge of Canudos. Once again, the army was faced with a no retreat/no advance situation.

During the assault, Lieutenant Wanderly, charging forward, was shot and his leaping horse wound up wedged in a rock crevice. Wanderly’s body was recovered but the horse’s corpse remained frozen in a charge, its mane blowing in the breeze, muzzle pointed at Canudos, as it mummified under the sun.

Deserters from Oscar’s expedition made their way south through the desert. The days were brutally hot, but the nights were bitterly cold. These men were starving and robbed whatever farms and ranches they came across. Sometimes, coming across a house belonging to a sertanejo family, they burned it down. It didn’t matter that these people were not followers of Antonio the Counselor, they were of the same kind and striking against them made up a little for having deserted the army. Eventually the deserters that survived this brutal trek arrived in Monte Santo, expecting to find food and medical treatment. But Monte Santo had not been properly set up and there was no food and the so-called hospital was a grim death trap that men avoided. So the deserters continued down the road to the next town.

Confused reports of great victories won were telegraphed back to the government but at some point these reports began to ring hollow. The figures showed that the expedition had taken more than two thousand casualties and these were increasing by at least eight a day. In addition, the ragged hungry deserters had made their way back to Baiá, visual evidence that no one could deny. More relief units were sent out — some fell to pieces before they arrived and those that reached the outskirts of Mount Favella had to run a gauntlet of sertanejo fire along the stretch of road that took them up Mount Favella.

Marshal Bittencourt

The government had become quite alarmed over this situation and assigned Marshal Carlos Bittencourt, the Minister of War, to investigate. Da Cunha does not like Bittencourt, who is cold and distant and very unlike the romantic ideal of a soldier that da Cunha learned to admire in military school. But he gives Bittencourt his due:  the man perceives and remedies the two great errors of the expeditionary generals. First, he establishes a supply line, garrisoned at strategic points, all the way to the front. Second, he sends troops northeast and northwest of Canudos to close off any chance of relief for the sertanejos. It takes some time to accomplish these tasks, but Bittencourt continues to funnel more troops and supplies into Mount Favella. By mid-August there are regular supply trains running between Monte Santo and Mount Favella.

The government troops clinging to the edge of Canudos or hanging on the slopes of Favella, meanwhile, spent a desperate month. Men desperate for food would attack a house and be mesmerized by the sight of some dried beef hanging from the ceiling. As they reached for it, a gunman hidden in a dark corner would open up on them. Other soldiers grabbed fistfulls of flour from containers and choked them down, later suffering agonizing stomach pains.

On August 24 the Whitworth finally managed to take out the church belfry, a target for two months. Immediately after, a piece of equipment became jammed in the bore rendering the gun even more useless than it had been up to that point. The sertanejos let loose a fusillade at the attackers, as they always did when artillery fired on the church. There was sporadic fighting for the next few days but after that the sertanejos were noticeably quiet. There was none of the hymn-singing and group prayers that had sounded out from Canudos in the past.

Bittencourt made his way north. At Monte Santo he imposed martial law. The town became an ordered military base for the first time. The hospital became a genuine healing place with plenty of doctors. Bittencourt himself sat where the supply trains were loading each morning, watch in hand. Impatiently he waved the trains out and on their way the forty miles to Mount Favella. The supply trains ran daily now and the effect on the government forces was immediately apparent: morale increased, desperation lessened, and the soldiers regained some spirit.

On September 6, the twin steeples of the church collapsed under cannon fire from the Krupp guns. These had been used as sniper platforms by the sertanejos but now everyone was down in the dirt. The next day troops routed sertanejo forces from a place where they had been firing into the Favella camp and began to close a line around Canudos. Soon there was only one place out, along the road to Uruá and, on September 24, after a sharp battle, that, too, was cut off. Canudos was surrounded. Now there was still the problem of taking it.

Pajehú and João Abbade were dead. João Grande was in charge of the sertanejo troops. Right away they tested the strength of the blockade around them, attacking each line of government trenches, to the west, to the north… For the first time, the sertanejos seemed absolutely wasteful of ammunition as they fired everything they had at the besieging army. Soon they realized that there was no escape.

Captured women and children at Canudos.

The government troops began taking prisoners. They brought them in for questioning, usually, but interrogated or not, the male prisoners were afterward led away and murdered. They were beheaded because of a story that sertanejos feared that death more than hanging. Da Cunha describes one such event:

There was one Negro, one of the few pure blacks that were there, who…was brought before the commander… He was still panting and exhausted from the engagemrent in which he had been taken and from having been dragged and shoved along by the soldiers.Tall and lean, his gaunt and slightly stooping frame showed all the rigors of hunger and of battle, his emaciation causing him to seem even taller than he was. His inordinately long hair afforded but a glimpse of his narrow brow, and his markedly prognathous face, all but lost in his cottony beard, was a bruised and filthy mask. He reeled as he walked; and his tottering, infirm step, his woolly head, …his flattened nose, thick lips, …his long, bare, dangling arms — all this gave him the wizened appearance of a sickly orangutan. They did not waste any time on him; for he was an animal, not worth questioning. [A much shorter corporal] had difficulty in adjusting the halter about the condemned man’s throat; whereupon the prisoner calmly gave him a hand… a change [came] over the poor fellow the moment he took his first steps toward his execution. That begrimed and filthy body, barely supported by the long withered limbs beneath, now of a sudden took on admirably — and terribly sculpturesque lines… a statuesque masterpiece modeled out of the mire. The Negro’s stooping frame was now rigid and erect, striking a pose that was exceedingly beautiful in the pride of bearing it expressed: head up, shoulders thrown back, chest out, with all the defiant hauteur of a nobleman of old, as a pair of flashing eyes lighted up the manly face. Resolutely, impassively, he followed where his captor led — silently, …with an impeccable demeanor. Truly, he was a statue, an ancient statue of a Titan, …now exhumed, blackened and mutilated, in that enormous ruin heap of Canudos. It was an inversion of roles, a shameful antimony.

There you have a progression from orangutan to Titan in the space of two paragraphs. After da Cunha’s death, Afrânio Peixoto said that his book was “not a work of history, tactics, or geography, it is simply the book that tells of the backlands’ effect on the soul of Euclides da Cunha.” That soul was much bruised by the events he was witnessing now. And his ideas, his intellectual foundation about matters such as progress, race, military virtues, was shaken by the kind of “antimony” he described above. As Luiz Costa Lima has it, he was perplexed.

In the villages south of Canudos, where troops had garrisoned before moving north, the walls were covered in rude and obscene graffitti. The soldiers, some of them deserters or “quitters”, had, in da Cunha’s view, expressed their true feelings about Brazil’s “scandal”. The “dismal humor of the barracks” drained the entire enterprise of “its heroic aspect; it was no longer a noble and a brilliant enterprise.”

Heads unearthed by archeologists near Canudos.

Canudos now was slowly being strangled. The inhabitants began to starve and soon ran short of water. Still they held out. The troops began setting houses afire or dousing the rubble battlements with kerosene and burning the defenders alive. Da Cunha takes a tour of the lines; he sees the ruined houses and pitiful belongings of the poor people who lived there in a “woebegone” existence. The place is littered with corpses, some slowly burning. Still, a bit of carelessness could get you killed by a sertanejo sniper. Both sides now, says da Cunha were using the same tactics and these are not the ones he learned back in military school where everything was more logical and European.

At least, says da Cunha, the troops maintained enough self-respect not to murder women and children. As the siege line closed in on Canudos, a man named Pious Anthony (“a tall, light-colored mulatto of erect bearing”) surrendered to the government forces.  He was one of Antonio Counselheiro’s chief aides — or had been, since Antonio had died some days before, he told the officers who received him. The officers said that the people in Canudos should all surrender, but Anthony said that, although he had tried, he could not get them to follow him. He did agree to try again. A few hours later he returned, leading a large group of women and children. These were escorted to a holding-place for prisoners. Pious Anthony was taken away, not to be seen again; da Cunha has no doubt that he met the same fate as other male prisoners.

The commanders of the government forces were willing to wait out the siege; they had no interest in losing further lives. Impatient junior officers led a charge into the city where they were slaughtered. This confirms the commanders in their decision, but there is a problem: in November the rainy season will begin, fighting will be difficult and the encampments will become seas of mud. Two-thirds or more of the city are now in government hands; the remaining bit looks like it will collapse under an assault, so General Oscar proposes one.

The assault begins with a bombardment, a massive cannonade from all the guns that reduce the remaining houses to rubble, then the troops move in. But the sertanejos rise from the wreckage and fight back. The battle becomes desperate and the attackers finally are forced to dig in, holding the ground they have taken, and move on to taking the town house-by-house or, as it now stands, rubble heap by rubble heap. They throw dynamite at areas where riflemen might be hiding:

It was the very core of our nationality, the bedrock of our race, which our troops was attacking here, and dynamite was the means precisely suited. It was at once a recognition and a consecration.

The battle grinds on, the government troops continuing their inexorable squeeze, until finally, on October 4, in the ruins of one house, the troops encountered four defenders, one of them an old man, one of them a boy. They are killed and they are the last. Canudos has held out, literally, to the last man. About 5000 government soldiers and 15000 – 30000 sertanejos have died. The few houses standing are set ablaze. The grave of Antonio the Counselor is located and his body exhumed and photographed. He is reburied. Then it is decided that, for some reason or another, his head should be preserved. His new grave is opened just enough for men to remove it and send it south. Da Cunha concludes his book with two lines: “The trouble is that we do not have today a Maudsley for acts of madness and crimes of nations…” [ellipsis in original]

The only photo of Antonio Conselheiro, taken two weeks after his death.

Maudsley was an expert on insanity whose work was based on phrenology. That da Cunha, the scientific man, calls on him for expertise is one last bit of irony.

There had been accounts of the Canudos War by other participants before da Cunha’s, but when it was finally published in 1902, Os Sertões became an instant best-seller. It has gone through many printings in Portugese and is the subject of much discussion among critics of Latin American literature. Jorge Borges disliked it. He calls the book a “sociological curiosity”. He prefers a later work by Cunningham-Graham called A Brazilian Mystic — that’s the way, said Borges, a “real writer” would have handled this subject matter. Cunningham-Graham cribbed most of his book from da Cunha but he takes a very different stance. Borges’ objections to da Cunha are worth investigating, I suppose, but for now I’m going to leave it. Other “real writers” have tackled the subject matter of Canudos, most especially Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World.

Many have sought to find correspondence between current events and the Canudos War. Translator Samuel Putnam compared the fighting in Canudos to Stalingrad. The foreword to the 1960s English edition of this book talked about Vietnam. Canadian readers will be reminded of the 1885 siege of Batoche, which also featured a charismatic religious leader with an apocalyptic vision — the Riel Rebellion has, in fact, many similarities to the Canudos War. But the main question that people now ask is: Was it really necessary to attack that town? Could Antonio and his followers have been left in peace? And, as da Cunha himself notes, there are moral questions that arise when an advanced power attacks poor people who lack the technology to resist.

Euclides da Cunha had a huge reputation following publication of his book. He undertook an expedition to the Amazon that took all of 1905. When he returned home, da Cunha found his wife had been living with a lover, Dillermando de Assis. The couple was reconciled and da Cunha accepted the new baby as his own. He wrote his book on the Amazon — one of the first to cover this region of Brazil — and it was successful. His marriage deteriorated though and, in 1909, his wife returned to Dillermando, taking the children with her. Da Cunha burst into Dillermando’s house and there was a gun battle. Dillermando was wounded, his brother was left partially paralyzed, and Euclides da Cunha was killed. Some years later, his son, also named Euclides da Cunha, shot at Dillermando in the street, wounding him, and Dillermando returned fire, killing da Cunha’s namesake.

The sertanejos continued their harsh existence. In 1983, the worst drought of the 20th Century left 350,000 dead in the sertões. In 1998, when another drought struck, bands of sertanejos looted stores of food intended for school lunch programs. A local judge refused to find them guilty. When President Cartoso said that theft was a crime and must be punished, the Brazilian Judges’ Association, comprising some 14,000 active and retired magistrates, reminded him that stealing food when hungry is not a crime because it happens during a “state of necessity” and is allowed by the nation’s legal code. I wonder if da Cunha’s book had some influence there.

Sertanejos in 1993 celebrating the centennial of Canudos which lies underwater behind them.

Da Cunha said that the problems of the backlands could be alleviated with a good system of dams and water control. Brazil budgeted for that throughout the 20th Century, but most of the funds were drawn off by ranchers who used the water for their own purposes. Still, a dam was built on the Vasa Barris that created a huge lake that now covers Canudos. In the meantime, immigrants from the notheast swell the slums and favelas of urban Brazil.

This is the book:

Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha, translated by Samuel Putnam
Backlands: The Canudos Campaign translated by Elizabeth Lowe

2 comments on “Good Books: Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha (Part Two)

  1. Chuck says:

    It’s a great book and the story still is relevant today. Thanks for the write up.

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