Shengavit Historical and Archaeological Culture Preserve

Display of ancient artifacts in the Shengavit museum

2011-2013

BY HOVSEP DAGDIGIAN

Summary: The Shengavit Historical and Archaeological Culture Preserve is a stone-age archaeological site on the bank of Yerevan Lake in Yerevan. It contains a small museum and remains of a settlement dating to the 4th millennium B.C. In 2009 Mr. Vladimir Tshagharyan assumed the position of director of the site, reporting to the director of the Erebuni Museum, Mr. Gagik Gyurjyan. The Shengavit preserve and Karmir Blur archaeological sites (both in Yerevan) are under the control of the Erebuni museum and its director. Mr. Tshagharyan had a staff of two others at the site. There was no ($0.00, yes zero!) funding for the operation or maintenance of the site which was badly in need of repair. In 2012 the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA) initiated a program to buy construction materials to allow Shengavit’s staff to maintain the site and make needed repairs. That year, as a representative of CYSCA, I briefly met with Mr. Gyurjian who inquired about the amount of aid available from CYSCA and stated that funding should go through him. When told this was impossible he acquiesced to CYSCA’s plan to purchase construction material which would be used by Mr. Tshagharyan to make repairs. By the end of 2012 significant improvements were made to the site, though an immense amount of work still needed to be done. In 2013 additional funds were raised by CYSCA for this project but at every step numerous, deliberate obstacles were created to halt progress. Erebuni’s director appeared more interested in the amount of funding available from CYSCA than the maintenance and improvements Mr. Tshagharyan planned for Shengavit. With Mr. Tshagharyan’s hands tied and unable to continue Shengavit’s maintenance and upkeep, he resigned. This terminated CYSCA’s support program as well as a support program by another NGO. Details are contained in the main body of this article. Facts for this article were corroborated by a number of individuals.

This report is mine alone and not that of the CYSCA or any other organization.

Part 1:

Introduction

In 1925 it was discovered that a Neolithic (stone-age) settlement existed on about 15 hectares (37 acres) of land above the Hrazdan River. This settlement existed from the late 4th millennium B.C. and was inhabited for close to 2,000 years. A number of Armenian and non-Armenian archaeologists and scientists have examined this site on and off since its discovery.

Currently most of the site is inaccessible as a Soviet era hospital (Hospital No. 6) was built on the site and following independence the Miami Hotel, a gas station, and other structures were built on top of the ancient settlement. The current archaeological preserve consists of 5 hectares (12 acres) with inadequate security and fencing, and a small wooden 1930s era building which serves as its museum. Until mid-summer 2013, Mr. Vladimir Tshagharyan served as the Shengavit preserve’s director, having assumed that post in 2009. Mr. Tshagharyan is a trained architect and has spent most of his career involved in the protection and preservation of Armenia’s historic, archaeological, and cultural monuments. Though Mr. Tshagharyan was the director of the Shengavit site, overall directorship of Shengavit, the Karmir Blur Urartian site in Yerevan, and the Erebuni Archaeological site and museum is under Erebuni’s director Mr. Gagik Gyurjyan.

Upon Mr. Tshagharyan’s assumption of Shengavit’s directorship, he discovered that about 40% of the remaining territory of the site had been privatized shortly after Armenian independence. Armed with extensive archival documentation and photographs, Tshagharyan fought a year-long battle going to the Yerevan City Hall, the courts, the public prosecutor’s office, and the regional city hall. The documents transferring this land to individuals were signed by the prime minister. People have indicated that it is likely that the prime minister was presented with a stack of documents to sign by advisors, and it is unlikely that he would have knowingly signed such a document. The privatized land was received by two institutions: Hospital Number 6 and a polyclinic (both of which are next to the Shengavit preserve) and three individuals, including Vanush Babayan. Mr. Babayan’s wife is the janitor at Shengavit though Mr. Babayan serves in her place. He also was, until recently, hired by the police department to serve as a day watchman at the site. The police department later dismissed Babayan as Shengavit’s daytime watchman. Until that time Mr. Tshagharyan paid him, out of his own pocket, an additional stipend to help with maintenance and construction at the site. All those who had acquired portions of Shengavit land have verbally agreed to relinquish ownership of the land and return it to the Shengavit preserve. However for the land to be officially and legally returned to the Shengavit preserve Mr. Gyurjyan, in his position as director of Erebuni, must ask the management of Hospital Number 6 and the Polyclinic to formally and legally, in writing, to renounce ownership of this land and return it to the Shengavit preserve. Oddly, Mr. Gyurdjyan, as of the date information for this report was compiled (late summer, 2013), has NOT requested that the necessary documents be signed and recorded in the Yerevan city archives, without which the land is not officially returned to Shengavit. One can only be suspicious of this failure to act and speculate that there may be an attempt to keep this land privatized or transfer it to others.

Administration of the Shengavit Historical and Archaeological Culture Preserve

The Shengavit site is under the control of Erebuni museum’s director, Mr. Gyurjyan, and ultimately under the control of the Minister of Culture, Mrs. Hasmik Poghosyan, and the city government of Yerevan. The culture ministry is in charge of the antiquities. It can allow or disallow excavations, and controls the disposition of ancient artifacts from the site together with Erebuni’s director. Shengavit’s land belongs to the city of Yerevan. Thus there appears to be a divided responsibility regarding protection of the site and its contents.

Shengavit museum building before renovations

The Yerevan city government funds the Erebuni archaeological site and museum which, in turn, is responsible for funding the upkeep of the Shengavit and Karmir Blur sites. But Shengavit has received no funding for its upkeep from Erebuni.

The Erebuni site and its museum as well as Karmir Blur are Urartian sites dating to the iron-age (roughly 1100 – 800 B.C.).  In contrast, the Shengavit site and its culture predate the Urartian era by roughly 2500 years, and is some distance from Erebuni. It is difficult to justify the Shengavit site being under the authority of Erebuni on a geographic, cultural, or historic basis as there are completely different issues involved in the study of these two disparate historical eras and in preservation issues. In the opinion of many the indifference, neglect, and mismanagement of the Shengavit site by Erebuni’s director makes it imperative that Shengavit site should be separated from Erebuni and Shengavit’s director should report directly to the Cultural Ministry.

Shengavit museum building after Mr. Tshagharyan became director

Upon Tshagharyan’s assumption of Shengavit’s directorship, the site had no water or rest room facilities, no air conditioning for its museum, and no pavilion to shade visitors from the hot sun. There was no outside lighting. There was only a short inadequate section of fencing which provided no protection from intruders or trespassers, and the museum building was in shambles. There was no bench for visitors to sit on, and inadequate signage. There was no real entrance to the site and often garbage was found dumped on the site. Moreover though there originally was a staff of 3 inadequately paid workers, including Tshagharyan, there was no funding whatsoever for the operation and maintenance of the site. Tshagharyan renovated the museum building, posted attractive signs on the site, and made other improvements which were financed by small donations from friends and from his own meager pay. No funding was dispensed to Shengavit by Erebuni or its director.

CYSCA’s Shengavit Project

During a visit to Armenia in 2011 with my wife we purchased a small amount ($200-300’s worth) of construction material which Mr. Tshagharyan used to do some maintenance on the site.

In 2012 the Cambridge Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA), with the support of concerned donors, purchased supplies to repair a broken bench on the site, to install and repair fencing around about 30-40% of the site, to repair leaking roofs on two small stone/cement buildings which were planned to become a bathroom and an office, to install an entrance and door to the site, and to make other improvements. The transformation of the site was startling though there remained much more to be done. This was all done without any funding from Erebuni or from the Cultural Ministry which is responsible for the preservation of Armenia’s antiquities. In early summer of 2012, in a conversation with me as a representative of CYSCA, Mr. Gyurjyan indicated that all assistance to Shengavit should go through him or through the Yerevan city government. He was informed that CYSCA was a non-profit organization and that funds were raised for the express purpose of directly purchasing building supplies and making these supplies available to Mr. Tshagharyan for renovating and maintaining the Shengavit site. The proper use of this material would be monitored. I emphasized that any use of funds for other than their intended purpose would be illegal under U.S. law. Mr. Gyurjyan then asked how much funding CYSCA had collected. When told it was about $1,000 or a bit more, he replied “Jisht ek anoom” (“You are doing the right thing”).

Newly constructed entrance for Shengavit preserve

In 2013 additional funds were raised by CYSCA, with the help of generous donors, with funds again to be used directly to purchase construction material for Shengavit’s maintenance and renovation under Mr. Tshagharyan’s directorship. Priorities and renovation plans were established by Mr. Tshagharyan, as Shengavit’s director, to renovate the museum building, install water and rest room facilities, and provide an outdoor pavilion for visitors as well as generally cleaning up the site. In 2013 I, with Mr. Tshagharyan, visited the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Officer Mr. Sean O’Hara and other embassy officials to discuss the Shengavit project. Mr. O’Hara had previously accompanied U.S. Ambassador Heffern and Mrs. Heffern on visits to Shengavit. Also Armenian president Serge Sargsyan visited the site. There were good indications that assistance in one form or another would be forthcoming through the U.S. embassy, though no detailed plans had yet been worked out. The American Research In the South Caucasus (ARISC), through a grant initiated by archaeologist Dr. Mitchell Rothman of Widener University in PA, allocated funds to help renovate Shengavit’s museum building using architectural plans drawn up and donated by Mr. Tshagharyan.

In short, renovation of the Shengavit Historical and Archaeological Preserve was on track. It was an evolving success story.

Part 2:

Problems Arise

During the summer of 2012 both American and Armenian archaeologists excavated the site, though there was little effort to adequately preserve these excavations. Permission to excavate Armenian archaeological sites and the responsibility to oversee preservation of these sites ultimately rests with the Minister of Culture and, in the case of Shengavit, on Erebuni’s director. Mr. Tshagharyan, Shengavit’s director, has no authority whatsoever to allow or disallow excavations or to demand adequate preservation after excavations are conducted. Additionally, artifacts recovered from excavations at Shengavit are required by Armenian law to be placed either in Shengavit’s museum or in Erebuni’s museum, as Erebuni has authority over Shengavit. As of the date of the initial draft of this report, few if any significant artifacts from Shengavit have been deposited either at Erebuni or Shengvit, and instead remain in the personal possession of one or more Armenian archaeologists who have excavated at Shengavit. Artifacts currently on display in Shengavit’s museum were recovered from Soviet era excavations and dealt with properly.

As work was to begin in the summer of 2013 with funds newly collected by CYSCA, Shengavit’s director dismissed one of Shengavit’s employees, Mr. Babayan , for eminently just causes. On the following morning Erebuni’s director reinstated Babayan and told him not to cooperate with Mr. Tshagharyan’s efforts to renovate the site. Mr. Tshagharyan attempted to hire a recent graduate of the construction institute to help with renovations. There was to be NO net increase in the total salaries paid to Shengavit’s staff. Again, Erebuni’s director overruled Tshagharyan and prohibited the hiring of this young man. It was clear that the Shengavit renovation project was being deliberately blocked and was not going to proceed. Tshagharyan tendered his resignation as Shengavit’s director.

The Aftermath

Erebuni’s director, Mr. Gyurjyan, initiated a meaningless investigation of Shengavit’s finances. He was sent a letter by CYSCA indicating that financial records for CYSCA’s support are with CYSCA, and he should notify CYSCA in writing if he has any issues or questions. In short, there are no Shengavit finances! Shengavit received no operational funding from Erebuni or the Armenian government. Neither did Shengavit receive funding from CYSCA. CYSCA purchased construction material and had it delivered to the Shengavit site for use by Mr. Tshagharyan. In fact Mr. Gyurjyan has seldom expressed an interest in the renovation of Shengavit to either Mr. Tshagharyan or to CYSCA. His expressions of concern have been about how much funding CYSCA and ARISC have allocated for Shengavit.

Damaged stone wall at Shengavit preserve

Mr. Gyurjyan threatened to reject Mr. Tshagharyan’s resignation. Under Armenian law, an employer has a right to retain an employee for up to 4 weeks following that employee’s resignation, and four weeks had already expired. Mr. Tshagharyan was no longer Shengavit’s director or subject to Mr. Gyurjyan’s authority.

It was mentioned to Mr. Tshagharyan and to CYSCA that renovations or modifications to public property must be approved by the Yerevan City government. Mr. Tshagharyan was appointed Shengvit’s director. His responsibility was not to manage excavations, but to maintain and operate the site – though he received no operational finances to do so! In fulfilling his duties, he replaced or renovated fencing surrounding about 40% of the site, installed new attractive signs, repaired a ruined bench for visitors, painted the museum building, fixed leaking roofs on two buildings, dug a trench to provide the site with water and sewage connections, installed outside lighting, and installed doors and locks on two auxiliary buildings and on Shengavit’s entrance. These are precisely in line with the tasks that the director of such a site is expected to be concerned with.

Erebuni’s director, Mr. Gyurjyan, is known to boast of his power and influence through powerful friends in government. Indeed he does have influential contacts. With his influential contacts he certainly, in an instant, could get approval for any construction work needed at Shengavit – if approval were actually necessary.

Evidence of Mr. Gyurjyan’s influence may be gleaned from a June 30, 2009 news article from ArmeniaNow.com.

The article cites corruption within Armenia’s Ministry of Culture in which $330,000 was misappropriated. Mr. Gyurjyan was deputy minister of culture in charge of monument preservation projects at the time. As a result, on June 24, 2009 Mr. Gyurjyan was removed from his position.  Despite the taint of being associated with this scandal, he was made director of the Erebuni preserve and museum later the same year!

In a related issue, as reported on April 2, 2013 by the ARKA news agency, the Armenian Monuments Awareness Project (AMAP) together with the Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds, is receiving 325,500 euros to promote tourism along the historic Silk Road, which includes Armenia. Participating in this is the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Mr. Gagik Gyurjyan is the head of the Armenian branch of ICOMOS. For additional articles see the reports by Hetq.am and the USAID Economic and Market Competitiveness Project.

On July 31 a new Shengavit director was appointed. On that same day the new director protested the absence of water and rest room facilities at the Shengavit preserve. He also noticed the partial destruction of an attractive stone wall along part of Shengavit’s border with Hospital Number 6’s parking lot. The partial destruction of the wall was approved by Mr. Gyurjyan at the request of Mr. Zori Balayan, one of the hospital’s owners, while Mr. Tshagharyan was visiting the U.S. as a guest of CYSCA. Mr. Balayan wanted part of the wall torn down to “get a better view of Mt. Aragats from the hospital’s parking lot”! Mr. Gyurjian had no objection! The newly appointed director of Shengavit resigned the following day.

After his resignation, Mr. Tshagharyan was criticized for not installing water and rest room facilities at Shengavit. Mr. Tshagharyan had no funding for rest rooms, water, or anything else for that matter. Yet plans were made and work begun to install water and sewage, and a building for rest rooms was partially renovated using material purchased by CYSCA. It is likely that this fall water and a bathroom would have been available had Mr. Tshagharyan been allowed to continue unhindered.

View of the U.S. Embassy from the Shengavit preserve

A new temporary director was appointed. She is the lone employee at Shengavit other than the woman who is the janitor, who never shows up. The janitor’s husband, Mr. Babayan, who does show up, as of the time this report was drafted, had not cut the tall dry grass at Shengavit which poses a fire hazard should a carelessly discarded cigarette ignite the grass. Also hospital waste was recently found on the site.  The current operational budget for maintenance of the site is still zero ($0.00).

Significant improvements have been made to the Shengavit preserve thanks to CYSCA and individual donors. Thanks also go to Mr. Tshagharyan’s dedication to the preservation of Armenia’s historical and cultural heritage. But much more needs to be done to make Shengavit visitor friendly and to preserve Shengavit’s archaeological record. It’s unclear what the future holds for Shengavit. Will the recently privatized land be reincorporated into the Shengavit preserve? Will additional land be privatized? Will much needed amenities be established for visitors and researchers?

It’s time for the Shengavit Historical and Archaeological Culture Preserve to be removed from the neglect and mismanagement of the Erebuni museum’s director and be placed under honest and competent upper level management with adequate funding.

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18 Comments

  1. An Armenian said:

    What does all this say about Armenia’s Minister of Culture, Mrs. Hasmik Poghosyan, and the city government of Yerevan? I can’t imagine that neither Mrs. Hasmik Poghosyan nor the city government of Yerevan were/are unaware of all that has happened. Several scenarios come to mind. She and the city government are either an accomplice, or she is incompetent or she and the city government are a tool at the hands of the infamous Armenian President, Mr. Serge Sarkissyan.

  2. Sonya Merian said:

    Thank you so much for this exposee. It is quite discouraging to read about such neglect of an important architectural and archeological site. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, the right course of action will be taken.

    Sona
    Boston

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  4. Lucine Kasbarian said:

    Thank you, Hovsep, for drawing attention to these violations — ultimately against the archaeological patrimony of Armenia. I’ve met Vova Tsagharyan in the US and Armenia and am humbled by his expertise, dedication and determination against the odds. Shengavit is evidence on the ground of the early and continual existence of the Armenian people on these lands. To squander away this treasure of global (and not simply national) importance not only dishonors those such as Tsagharyan who selflessly serve the greater good but distorts the record of ancient history. Gurdjyan should be stripped of his duties and punished accordingly, but since he’s a protected individual in Armenia, it will have to be done by outside bodies. It is long overdue for the Diaspora to mobilize if Armenia is to be rehabilitated.

    • Artur said:

      Dear Lucine Why do you blindly believe gossips and fairy tells of Mr. Tshagharyan?
      If you knew Mr. Gyurjyan you wouldn’t post comment like you did.
      It seems to me that you have a personal interest to do behave like that.
      And it’s not correct to judge person that you don’t know as it could have an boomerang effect.

  5. edward demian said:

    Primitive people of the Communist era still dominate the Post Communist world. The Communists killed and imprisoned all competent and educated people so as to have no opposition. We should have imprisoned every Communist Party member in Armenia and charged them with treason.

  6. Vic said:

    Shengavit is a national treasure that must be preserved. Without culture and the deep understanding of our past, we are lost.

  7. Artur said:

    According to this article Mr. Tshagharyan and Mr. Dagdigian did there best to underestimate Mr. Gyurjyans respectable background that has nothing common with reality and truth.

  8. Anna said:

    I’m just amazed how people can talk such bad, unjust and inconsistent with the reality things, to Mr.Gyurjyan address. I’ve had the honor of working with Mr. Gyurjani a few years, and I can say that both as a leader and as a person, he is a wonderful man, Intelligent, professional, respectable, a person who cares for every employees needs and concerns, and he has a full of sense of humor I am very grateful to my destiny, that I had a chance to work and to get acquainted with Mr. Gyurjyan. There are many good things that we all have to learn from such wonderful person, as Mr.Gyurjyan.

  9. Hasmik said:

    Ճանաչելով Վոլոդյա Ճաղարյանին` չեմ կարող հավանություն տալ այս հոդվածին: Եվ սա մենից մեղմ բանն է, որ կարող եմ գրել:

  10. George said:

    I don’t doubt that the author of this article wrote this piece out of concern for our homeland, hoping to create some change and make things better. But the fact is, this attempt at character assassination, a one sided story based solely on information from a disgruntled employee, only does harm.

    Anyone who has met Mr. Gyurjyan knows what a dedicated professional he is, one of many in Armenia today, who has dedicated his life to his country, and does not deserve this kind of treatment. Next time you are in Yerevan, go visit the Erebuni Museum and ask to talk to him and see for yourself how knowledgable this person is.

    It saddens me greatly to see how we in the diaspora are so hungry for negative stories about Armenia, the armenian government or anyone from Armenia. Any story about corruption, be it true or false, is accepted at face value, without any questions, with a resounding “Of course that’s how it is!”.

    At a recent concert in LA, the whole theatre roared with applause and cheers as the singer said something negative about life in Armenia.

    We subconsciously like to hear these stories because they validate our own deeply held beliefs that everyone in Armenia is corrupt. Those smiling people in the theatre applauding were not merely agreeing with the singer. They were animated and energized as if their bodies were secreting endorphins at that moment. They were feeling a sense of joy, hearing this singer say the negative things that they wanted to hear.

    This is absolutely tragic.

    Yes, there is corruption in Armenia, there are people in power who have an unquenching thirst for money and power. But when we generalize about everyone in government and business, we end up demoralizing and destroying what good there is.

    • Joseph Dagdigian said:

      I was extremely reluctant to publish an article reflecting negatively on Armenia, but this does not reflect negatively on Armenia. Rather this reflects on the management of Yerebuni/Erebuni. The facts simply speak for themselves.With a small investment by Diaspora Armenians, significant improvements to Shengavit were made.There was practically NO investment from Erebuni which has overall responsibility for Shengavit.Moreover steps were taken to preclude further Diaspora investment in Shengavit. Additionally, my information is NOT from one “disgruntled” employee. My information is from a number of sources including some who are NOT employees of Shengavit or Erebuni.

      Visit Shengavit and see for yourself the poor condition of the site, and imagine what it was before Mr.Tshagharyan used what funds were available to make renovations. Erebuni has funds which it could use for Shengavit’s preservation, but even if it does not, why inhibit the Diaspora from funding Shengavit? Let’s get and honest answer to this question?

  11. Vic said:

    The article seems to me to be well-intentioned and factual, and I know that Mr. Dagdigan has written about Shengavit before and is probably the person who has covered it the most in the press.
    I think he deserves some credit.

    I don’t see why he would write anything except what he sincerely believes.

    This all seems to me to be a discussion about what is best for the homeland, and should be seen in that light and respected by alll participants. I am troubled at veiled threats made by some people.

    Let’s stick to what we believe are the facts, for the good of everyone and our homeland, and leave personalities out of this. Is the Armenian government doing right by Shengavit or isn’t it?

  12. Mamikon said:

    Usually, money misappropriation tactics is designed by the president of
    an organization followed by blaming on and firing the vice-president, if
    the latter doesn’t join or/and partly share the operation with the president.

  13. Anahid said:

    I have known Mr. Dagdigian for 14 years and worked with him on many projects. Through him I have gotten intimately familiar with the Shengavit project and met Mr. Tshagharyan a few times.

    I know how agonizing the experience has been and how hard both Mr. Dagdigian and Mr. Tshagharyan have tried to resolve this issue with Mr. Gurdjian in hopes of avoiding the current situation.

    The issue here is not the character assassination of any person, but rather the sad reality that large portions of the Shengavit archeological dig for which we, the diaspora, have put considerable sums in, has been privetized and most likely it means eventually sold for a building projects, that Mr. Tshagharyan, who is unbendingly honest has been stripped of his authirity to do anything as a director should be, because he is not willing to bend to corruption.

    I have the utmost respect for Mr. Tshagharyan’s resolve not to cave in to bribery and pressure to missuse Diaspora funds. He had absolutely no other option but to resign if he was not willing to bend under those pressures.

    As a person who loves Armenia and my people there, I am extremely saddened by the behavious of the cultural ministry and the Yerevan city government for not resolving this problem and leaving shengavit as a historical site with Mr. Tshagharyan directing it as he has done so successfullly and with great dedication in the past.

  14. Hovsep Dagdigian said:

    The evidence speaks for itself. Mr. Tshagharyan, CYSCA, and ARISC were prepared to help preserve and renovate the site, and were blocked by Mr. Gyurjyan’s actions. No funding was provided to Shengavit. What was the staff at Shengavit supposed to actually do? They did not even have a budget to by pencils and paper! Shengavit, either intentionally or due to incompetence or neglect of upper level management, was being set up to fail. They just did not care. It pains me to write negatively about anything in Armenia, but if people are not aware of these issues, they will not be fixed. We would not stand for this kind of abuse in the US or the Diaspora, and we should not stand for it in our Armenia either. We in the diaspora have a responsibility to Armenia, a responsibility to help, and a responsibility to identify abuses with the hope that the abuses will be fixed.

  15. Mitchell Rothman said:

    As eluded to by the author, the political situation surrounding Shengavit is very complex.

    Despite that, Dr. Hakob Simonyan and I are leading an Armenian and international team working hard to analyze the artifacts and publish a book (with English and Hayeren versions) and put up an open source web archive. We intend for the first time in the 76 years since the first significant excavations by Bayburtian to present a systematic and comprehensive picture of the remains and their meaning for international scholars and for anyone in the public interested in the early history of Armenian lands. This work will preserve the site’s data, and hopefully, will lay a foundation for future restoration of the mound and construction of an appropriate, endowed museum near the site.

    All is not lost for this very important site.

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