Category Archives: Labinot

First Blood

Mule path from Labinot to Xibrake

Walking the ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ from Labinot to Xibrake

This embarrassingly irregular blog continues with a post I should have put up, ooo, last September. A shameful delay on my part, but I have to confess it’s not the only long-delayed post in my back catalogue – I have more on Orenje, meeting bears before breakfast, and a research trip to Macukull in the Mati, where David Smiley and various other Special Operations Executive officers had uncomfortably close shaves with German troops. I shall endeavour to catch up…

Anyway, in early September I was keen to pin down the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Enver Hoxha when they unsuccessfully tried to escape German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river between Elbasan and Librazhd. Thanks to my friend Ferit Balla, who holds the unpublished memoirs of the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha, I knew just where Davies et al emerged from the hills – the village of Xibrake. I knew they left from Labinot (and just where in Labinot, too). So I figured it would be pretty easy to find the route. Just walk from Xibrake to Labinot… I’d come close to doing it the previous week…

I overnighted in Elbasan, a rather bizarre town that I like a lot if only for its well-attended giro each evening (if you’re not familiar with the giro concept, basically everyone walks up and down the main street at sunset and says hello to one another). An early start and a particularly dicey furgon (minibus) got me to Xibrake nice and early, and off I strode – along totally the wrong path, I would discover shortly. The walk to Labinot was uneventful, and I arrived at the outskirts of the village with the clichéd spring in my step and pressed on to the prominent house which had been Enver Hoxha’s on-and-off HQ (now a museum that doesn’t open).

Albanian villages, I should mention, are very spread out.

I found myself on one side of a valley. On the other was Hoxha’s HQ. I could see what looked like a well maintained path between me and it. The sun was shining. All was good. Until about 300 yards short of the HQ, when the path ended abruptly. No matter, I thought, I’ll cut through the garden blocking my route, smiling inanely at the wizened peasant who no doubt owns it and who would probably invite me in and fill me with raki as soon as I mentioned the words ‘General Davies’ (as he’s known in these parts). Unfortunately the wizened peasant wasn’t at home. His dogs, however, were.

I love dogs. But not Albanian dogs, with the exception of the huge Šarplaninac (Illyrian Sheep Dog). When confronted with a lanky Englishman the Šar, which will happily take on a wolf or bear, will just shrug its shoulders and get on with its core business of guarding sheep or goats. The 98 per cent of Albanian dogs that aren’t Šar, sadly, love nothing better than to sink their teeth into English flesh. They are partisan; Šar are Balli.

There were three of them, and they were small snarly well-beaten brutes not Šar. Due to an oversight on my part I didn’t have a big stick with me (an essential accessory for trekking in Albania). I pretended to have a stone ready to throw, which bought me time, but was quickly surrounded and bitten. Don’t pass this on to the Albanian Dog Lovers’ Association, but I kicked hard and I think effectively. I managed to pick up a few stones and threw them, satisfyingly accurately. The dogs were held at bay and I was able to beat a retreat to the next garden, where I immediately met one of the sweetest families I’ve encountered so far.

A bite from an Albanian hell hound

Ouch. Six months on and still no sign of rabies

They were obviously a bit surprised to have a random trekker bleeding over their vegetable patch, but quickly recovered from the shock and sat me down on their balcony. Raki was produced, but to clean the wound rather than drink, to my disappointment. The man of the house, Agim, insisted on giving me a clean T-shirt to wear, while his wife produced an impromptu feast. A phone call to Elton Caushi of Albanian Trip established my credentials and the purpose of my visit, and Agim, on hearing of our previous failed attempt to get into the museum, walked me up and tackled the mad woman who holds the keys and refuses access. No joy; she’s an immovable object.

Village hospitality in Albania

Typical Albanian village hospitality, spoiled somewhat by a pale hairy leg

The words ‘Rruga Enver Hoxha’ were bandied about and Agim and his wife walked me down a path and pointed me in what they insisted was the right direction. After profuse thanks I set off. But soon heard shouting – apparently I was going the wrong way. The two of them, who were both well into their sixties and wearing completely unsuitable footwear, then insisted on walking me to Xibrake along the route Davies and Hoxa took back in December 1943 – an ancient and neglected mule path. Never in a million years would I have found it by myself. Two hours later we were in Xibrake, where they waved me off. I tried to give them some money but they refused point blank. It must have taken them three hours to get home, as Xibrake to Labinot is a steep uphill trek.

I hope this gives you an idea of Albanian hospitality – and in my experience, this story is fairly typical. If you’re wondering if it’s a welcoming destination for tourists, the answer I’d suggest is yes. 

There are more photos for your delectation at the S.O.E. Trails Facebook page

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 13-19 December 1943

The house Brig 'Trotsky' Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania's WWII history

The house Brig ‘Trotsky’ Davies et al stayed in at Orenje in December 1943, photographed in September 2013. It is being restored by its owner, Ferit Balla, who is an enthusiast for Albania’s WWII history

Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies and Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, still at the village of Labinot after their unsuccessful attempt to break through German encirclement, kick off Monday 13 December 1943 with a louse hunt. Enver Hoxha tells them a fresh attempt to move will be made at noon on Tuesday. Davies sends a messenger to the rest of the mission, hidden at nearby Orenje. However, acting on earlier orders they arrive at 15.00 anyway. Two brown horses, captured from the Germans, are given to Davies and Nicholls, Hoxha receives a pair of brown field boots.

Tuesday is a fine but cold day. Departure is delayed – it seems till Thursday. Davies spends much of the day speaking with Enver Hoxha. He naively asks if Hoxha is a communist. Heavy fighting can be heard from the nearby Librazhd-Elbasan road.

On Wednesday Hoxha makes the decision to return to Orenje for a few days before making a fresh attempt to head south. The move is made early on Thursday morning. When the mission arrives at the house of Sulieman Balla, they discover an RAF sortie has made it through. They are desperate for warm clothing and food, but the drop is almost exclusively explosives and personal mail and magazines for the British, plus 7,500 gold sovereigns. The local partisan leader Kadri Hoxha flies into a rage, and says he’ll refuse to accept the explosives. Davies learns from Kadri that the local partisan units have dispersed; there is nothing between the mission and the Germans. The sovereigns are dumped in a latrine (they are retrieved the following April).

After a sleepless night, the British stand-to at 05.30. Davies sends out patrols. The day turns out to be sunny, but ferociously cold. A young Albanian doctor tells the British their are 24 sick and six seriously wounded partisans to be cared for. At some point, Davies sends a cable to the Special Operations Executive HQ in Cairo, recommending a change in policy. He says full support should be given to Enver Hoxha’s partisans, and the nationalist forces of the Balli Kombetar and the Zogists should be denounced as collaborators. He supplies a list of names for the pillory including Abas Kupi and Lef Nosi. This is the last signal Cairo will receive from Davies.

At 02.00 on the morning of Sunday 18 December, Davies is woken and told that the Germans are approaching. At 09.30 a German spotter plane drops leaflets over the houses the mission is occupying, calling on the Italian element to surrender and promising them safe conduct. At 11.00 Kadri Hoxha arrives and advises Davies to join the LNC Council at nearby Qurakuq. Davies leaves, and a few hours later the LNC Council arrives; a messenger is sent to bring Davies back.

By now Germans trucks can be heard. The mission, with Enver Hoxha and the LNC leadership, leave Orenje and march seven hours to a wood behind Bizë, where the British originally parachuted in. They can hear RAF planes overhead, but have to signal them to abort as they can’t receive supplies.

Cairo sends Davies a signal in response to his recent cable to the King, congratulating him on his birthday – ‘Could you convey His Majesty’s sincere thanks to Trotsky and those under his command for their kind birthday message’ – but he never receives it (National Archives, HS5/67).

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 6-12 December 1943

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Shkumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours' walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

View from an Ottoman bridge across the Skhumbini river, between Librazhd and Elbasan. Labinot is about two hours’ walk, behind the rocky hill to the left

The British Military Mission to Albania wakes up on the morning of Monday 6 December 1943 to the sound of a German Storch spotter plane circling overhead. The mood doesn’t improve when news arrives that the mission’s cook, Korca, who had been captured by the Germans, has been moved from prison to a hotel in Elbasan.

At 10.30am on Tuesday Colonel Barbacinto of the Italian Army arrives, and offers his services. His commanding officer, General Azzi, has taken 1,000 gold sovereigns from the British to feed his troops, and has holed up in a remote village; Barbacinto refused to accompany him. Davies can see no use for Barbacinto so sends him to join an Italian contingent hiding nearby. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha arrives and explains that the Bairam festival has started, which will mean much gunfire as people celebrate. He demands more ammunition. An RAF sortie is expected that night, but fails to arrive.

The mission wakes to more celebratory gunfire on Wednesday morning. At lunchtime the muleteers present Davies with a plate of cold lamb, and depart giggling. Overnight, three Italians in Orenje have died of starvation. Davies gives the partisan leader Kadri Hoxha 200 sovereigns to buy food. In the evening radio contact with Cairo is maintained long enough for Davies to send the signal –

“Brigadier E.F. Davies commanding Allied Military Mission in Albania begs with loyal and respectful duty to send his good wishes and those of the British Officers and N.C.O.s of his Mission to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his birthday, 14th December stop Request this message be passed quickly to arrive appropriate date stop” (National Archives, HS5/67)

Thursday is spent waiting for Enver Hoxha to send word that a move to the south is safe. Full moon is approaching; Davies suspects the move has been left too late. On Friday Hoxha sends a note telling the British to be ready to move.

At 11.30am on Saturday 11 December, the first section of the mission moves to Labinot. Translator Fred Nosi hasn’t employed a guide, they get lost and arrive at 19.30 to find a huge bonfire surrounded by partisans singing revolutionary songs. At 20.30 they move on to attempt to cross the Elbasan-Librazhd road and then the Skhumbini river.

The attempt is a failure, the British and partisans are forced to return to Labinot at 03.00am, arriving at 07.00am. Kadri Hoxha had failed to scout the river properly – it is too deep to cross due to the recent rain. He has also attacked local villages, drawing in Balli Kombetar forces. Enver Hoxha is still angry when he writes his memoirs in the 1970s (Kadri Hoxha spent 40 years in prison after the war on trumped-up charges). Gunfire can be heard throughout the day. Enver Hoxha arrives at 17.00 and is suitably contrite. He joins the British for a meal, and is unusually relaxed in their company. Much raki is drunk, and one of the Italian soldiers sings opera arias.

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SPILLWAY 70 Years On: 31 October to 7 November 1943

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky's day (National Archives)

Sorting supplies at Bizë. Actually taken in the summer of 1944, but much the same activity would have taken place in Trotsky’s day (National Archives)

Apologies for falling behind so quickly. As well as these brief posts on what the SPILLWAY mission was up to 70 years ago, I have several posts to get up on my exploration of the Çermenika mountains over the summer and autumn, as I trace the route taken by Brigadier ‘Trotsky’ Davies, Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, Enver Hoxha and co as they attempted to escape German encirclement in winter 1943/44. Hopefully I’ll get them all up by Christmas… Who’d have thought a simple blog about long-forgotten events in Albania 70 years ago could be so time-consuming? 

Sunday 31 October saw the first meeting between Davies and Enver Hoxha. It’s pretty strained – Hoxha is convinced that Davies is an intelligence officer rather than a regular soldier co-opted by the Special Operations Executive, and refuses to believe that the Brits’ brief is simply to fight the Germans. He even comes to the conclusion that the mission’s true purpose is to prepare the ground for a return by King Zog (or so he claims later in his memoirs). When Davies tells him that he won’t supply arms to the partisans if they use them to fight their fellow Albanians, Hoxha hits the roof.

Monday is a depressing day – the weather is getting colder at the Bizë HQ and the partisans present a few German prisoners who plead with Davies to help him. He can do nothing and assumes they were shot.

Tuesday is freezing cold. Two members of the Balli Kombetar (nationalist Albanian group opposed to the communists) arrive to announce that the Zogist leader Abas Kupi is at nearby Shengjergj. Davies and Nicholls enjoy a beautiful horse ride to the village, meet Kupi, and are then eaten alive by bed bugs when they sleep over.

Wednesday sees an inept broadcast by the BBC Albanian service guaranteed to alienate the entire country, both nationalist and communist. Davies sends a furious cable to Cairo, and also asks them to get the BBC to denounce by name the Regency Council installed by the Germans. This creates a kerfuffle in Cairo as SOE’s Albania advisor, Margaret Hasluck, had been the lover of the regent Lef Nosi before the war, and is still deeply in love with him. In the nearby village of Labinot, Enver Hoxha releases a letter declaring war on the Balli Kombetar and any Albanians who don’t support the partisans.

Lt Col Nicholls’ health is deteriorating, and he spends most of Thursday sick. In the evening Michael Lis, a Polish officer, arrives at Bizë and walks through the camp guard without being challenged and (wrongly) reports the death of a British mission in the Dibra region.

Enver Hoxha visits on Friday and stays for a cheerful lunch. Artillery can be heard in the distance. The partisan leader Kadri Hoxha is furious to discover that Davies has named his horse Kadri.

Nicholls remains ill with dysentery on Saturday 6 November. News is filtering through that civil war has broken out.

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Lost in Labinot

View from the hills separating Labinot from the main road. The bridge spanning the Shkumbini is a postwar replacement for the one blown by David Smiley in 1943

View from the hills separating Labinot from the main road. The bridge spanning the Shkumbini is a postwar replacement for the one blown by David Smiley in 1943

One of the joys of researching the putative Endurance Vile Trail is that it takes me to all sorts of odd places in Albania. I posted about the village of Labinot back in Spring when Toni Caushi of Albaniantrip.com and I attempted to get into the village museum, which is protected by a little old lady who, frankly, is off her rocker. Labinot is famous among Albanians old enough to have enjoyed the benefits of a Communist education for being one of the spots, along with Peza and Permet, where Enver Hoxha held a meeting or two during the war (this was enough to make any place, however obscure, of global importance if you were setting the Albanian national curriculum between 1945 and 1991).

Labinot also happens to be an important spot on the route of the Trail. In December 1943 Brigadier “Trotsky” Davies and his men spent several days here, unexpectedly. I say unexpectedly as they originally thought they’d be there a few hours – it was a mustering point for partisans and Brits alike as they tried to break through the German encirclement by crossing the Shkumbini river. Sadly the whole episode was a typical Albanian mess.

According to the diary kept against orders by Lt Col Arthur Nicholls, and now held at the Imperial War Museum in London, the Brits and partisans left Labinot at around 8.30pm on Saturday 11 December 1943. They crossed difficult terrain in near darkness, nearly making it to the river, before turning back at around 3am. The Shkumbini had risen suddenly and the proposed crossing point was impassable, added to which the Balli [nationalists] and Germans had been stirred up by an advance party led by our old friend Kadri Hoxha.

Enver Hoxha (no relation to Kadri) wrote in The Anglo-American Threat to America

Our crossing to the South failed … because the information which Kadri Hoxha, commander of the Staff of the Elbasan Group, gave us was completely wrong. He had neglected the importance of this undertaking, stayed at Orenja quite unconcerned idling away his time talking with Beg Balla and the British, while the enemy went into action and killed some of our men. I sent him a letter… in which I said bluntly that the zone of Elbasan was still very weak militarily and that responsibility for this state of affairs and for the failure of the attempt of the Staff to cross to the South fell on him, first of all. I pointed out in the letter that I had several times striven to help and advised him that he should take measures and get moving and that now I had no other course but to report the situation to the proper quarters, because whenever I had criticized him and instructed him to act, he repeated the same words: «You don’t know me well.»

After all preparations had been made, we were ready to cross the river at the ford because, as I have written, the Haxhi Beqari bridge had been blown up by an officer of the British mission [David Smiley]. We sent some comrades to reconnoitre the ford. It was passable. The crossing would be made quickly at night. We got down there at the set time, but just as we reached the road the couriers of our vanguard came to inform us that the Shkumbin was in flood. I went myself to the ford and saw that it was impassable. We returned to our base. There we were to stay until we received reliable information on which way it was possible to go.

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 10.18.41

Nicholls wrote a little ditty, which I think I can quote from as it was published in Dr Rod Bailey’s book The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle

‘… with apologies to Louis MacNeice and his poem “Bagpipe Music”:
It’s no go the merry-go-round
It’s no go the muck up
It’s no go the Skumbini [sic] River
It’s been a proper F– up!’

Now, my task was to find the route taken on that unfortunate night. I assumed it would be fairly straightforward. I knew from Kadri Hoxha’s unpublished diary, and from speaking to locals in the village café in Labinot, that Davies et al emerged from the hills at the village of Xibrake, to the southeast. I even knew, more or less, the exact point in Xibrake. So one blazing hot morning in August I got the furgon (minibus) to Xibrake, and struck out for Labinot.

The main road from Librazhd to Elbasan. The motel is cheap even by Albanian standards - 500 lek is around €3

The main road from Librazhd to Elbasan. The motel is cheap even by Albanian standards – 500 lek is around €3

I later discovered I went wrong more or less immediately. I couldn’t find a goat trail, so kept to a path that led to the village of Sericë, or at least the part of it to the west of the gorge that runs through the centre of the village. Heavy landslides of shale meant it was tricky going, but the path improved by Sericë’s tiny mosque and a nice young man with a heavily laden mule guided me uphill in what he assured me was the direction of Labinot.

Landslides make the path from Xibrake to Sericë pretty hairy

Landslides make the path from Xibrake to Sericë pretty hairy

The above brief paragraph took about four hours for me to walk in real time, including various wrong turns, backtracking and a lunch stop.

By the time I got to Labinot the temperature dropped to about 11°C (in August, I remind you) and a big storm hit. I’m learning that the weather in the Çermenika hills can turn on the drop of a conical white fez. By the time I squelched into the lower part of Labinot I felt pretty much like a drowned rat.

Track between Sericë and Labinot, just before the weather turned nasty

Track between Sericë and Labinot, just before the weather turned nasty

But this is Albania – one of the most hospitable countries in the world. Someone would look after me. I didn’t have high hopes, I confess, as my previous visit to Labinot had been enough to convince me that the locals were extremely, er, local. But a small child appeared, as they do, and within five minutes I was sitting in an old barber’s chair on the concrete verandah of a small café, hoping for an espresso and a raki but instead having to drink a huge glass of lumpy yoghurt, sucked from a freshly curdled cow, gratis. As is the way with Albanian villages, I had an audience of about seven wildly grinning men, whose English extended to “Aston Villa” and “Chelsea” etc.

After a bit of a hoo-ha a chap called Nico was produced. Nico, who it transpired lived in London with a Polish wife and was back for the summer, was it’s fair to say surprised to find a gangly English man drinking yoghurt in a village which isn’t exactly high on a list of Albania Must-Sees. We had a nice chat though, taking in the expense of living in London, the horrors of East Acton, pizza, and the sadistic behaviour of Greek border guards back in the Nineties, when Albanians such as Nico would sneak across the border at night in search of a better life. The outcome could be grim for those the Greeks caught. They despised Albanians (and still do). Sexual sadism was, Nico assured me, commonplace – he knew of one man who had been forced at gunpoint to.. Actually I won’t share that; it’s too unpleasant.

Goat path from Labinot to the Librazhd-Elbasan road

Goat path from Labinot to the Librazhd-Elbasan road

Anyway, after an hour or so Nico – no cartographer, sadly – drew me a map and set me on the way back to the Librazhd-Elbasan road, assuring me it was far too late in the day to catch a furgon. Of the route taken by Davies and Hoxha that night in 1943 he knew nothing, but it seemed likely to be the same for most of the way. Very scenic it was too, though instead of following the path to Xibrake I hooked a right to a spot on the main road where I knew I could get a coffee and a raki. My plan was to return in a day or so and try again, walking up to Labinot the way I came out, then back to the main road down the path I hadn’t taken. If that makes any sense. More anon…

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Scout and About

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it's home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

This museum was hallowed ground under communism. Now it’s home to a little old lady who shall let no one pass

One of the delights of researching the Endurance Vile Trail (Tuesday 14 – Tuesday 24 September, since you ask) are the scouting expeditions. These have been rather curtailed by unseasonal and torrential rain. On Friday, for instance, Elton (Toni) Caushi of Albaniantrip and I were planning to refresh our contacts in Biza, which we last visited six months ago, and trek up to the site of a mysterious crashed aeroplane that may or may not date from WWII. But a quick phone call with our man in situ, who assured us the ground was too sodden, led to a last-minute change of plans. Quite a relief, actually, as it seems to be impossible to visit Biza and nearby Shengjergj without being forced to consume industrial quantities of raki (they don’t get too many visitors).

Instead we headed south, to Elbasan and Labinot. The Endurance Vile itinerary as it stands so far means the first two nights will be spent in the boondocks. We figure the third day’s trekking, which will end in the vicinity of Labinot, overlooking the Shkumbini river, is a good opportunity to factor in some Albanian luxury. Which means a hop in a minibus to the Real Scampis hotel in Elbasan (yes, Real Scampis; typically it doesn’t seem to have a website, but its single review on TripAdvisor is a five-star humdinger in English too good to be written by the owner and it’s doubtful they have a blonde PR girl to manage their online reputation).

Elbasan is a fairly sophisticated place by Albanian standards, though Toni assures me six out of 10 children have three heads due to heavy industry. Before the war it was home to Margaret Hasluck, a fascinating Scottish academic and widow who happened to be the lover and soulmate of an Elbasani notable named Lef Nosi.

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE's Cairo HQ, at least

Lef Nosi: a pin-up, in Rustem Building, SOE’s Cairo HQ, at least

‘Had we been younger when we met – and richer – we would have married,’ she later wrote. ‘He had no money and I [lost] my husband’s… and had only what I put into the house. What we had without marriage was very wonderful – an almost perfect intellectual fit and complete similarity of ideals. And the work we planned to do!’*

War came and Hasluck ended up running the Special Operations Executive’s Albania office in Cairo before being demoted to advisor; Nosi ended up being a puppet regent under the Germans. In effect, a collaborator. In December 1943 Brig Davies requested Nosi be denounced, but Hasluck protested vehemently and walked out of SOE in February 1944. So disgusted was she by SOE’s support for the communist partisans that she even turned down the MBE offered to her (curiously she’s cited as an MBE on her Wikipedia page; seems you can’t fight The Man).

Anyway, this is all by-the-by. I’ll post properly about Hasluck anon. The real purpose of this post is to link through to this photo gallery, which should give prospective trekkers some understanding of what to expect. The countryside in this section isn’t the most beautiful, or the most challenging (by a lucky quirk of fate the really mountainous stuff comes on the last couple of days, by which time everyone should have their ‘wind’). But despite the rain and greyness, hopefully it’s not unappealing.

The highlight for me and Toni, though, was our visit to what was supposedly a museum at Labinot-Mal. Under communism this was hallowed turf – the Conference of Labinot was drummed into every Albanian schoolchild’s head. Today things are very different. We found the museum, eventually, but couldn’t get in. It seems the government has forgotten it exists. The attendant has died, and now his wife holds the keys. Despite the appeals of Toni and two lovely local chaps, she refused to let us in, setting the price at a pleasingly round 1,000,000 lek (around €7,000). Toni offered 500 lek for the two of us but she wouldn’t budge. God only knows what’s inside; the ground floor, certainly, is now home to her cows if the anguished mooing was anything to go by.

*Letter to Sir Andrew Ryan, 20 April 1946, from the Julian Amery Papers at the Churchill Archive Centre. No reference as the papers are currently being recatalogued. 

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