MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 31-Oct-13 11:13:08

Filip Borev: Ben Needham and Maria - why are Roma people still seen as ‘baby snatching gypsies’?

This week, two cases of suspected child abduction have made headlines - and central to both stories was the role of Roma communities in the alleged crimes. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Maria was removed from her adoptive Roma parents by police, who suspected them of stealing her. In Cyprus, DNA tests were carried out on a 22-year-old Roma man living in Cyprus - authorities suspected he could be Briton Ben Needham, who disappeared on the island of Kos at the age of two.

In this blog, 18-year-old writer and British Romani Filip Borev – who blogs at Pipopotamus - examines what the media reaction to these stories reveals about public prejudice towards Roma people.

Read the blog, and tell us what you think on the thread below.

Filip Borev


Posted on: Thu 31-Oct-13 11:13:08


Lead photo

Maria with Hristos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou, who she'd been living with.

Since Maria was discovered living in a Roma neighbourhood in Greece, the Roma have been the target of a piercing force of media attention. Maria, with her blonde hair and pale skin, was assumed to be the victim of child abduction. Her carers were detained and she was snatched from the only home, family and culture she had ever known. The story supposedly brought hope - Maria was referred to as the Greek Maddie and it was believed the girl must belong to a grieving white family, desperate to be reunited with their missing daughter. Indeed, the media was quick to point the finger and condemned the entire Romani community as potential child abductors. Yet, a shocking twist to the story soon emerged. Maria the blonde Angel had not been stolen. Rather, the mystery girl was in fact Roma herself. She had not been trafficked, sold or kidnapped she was the daughter of a Bulgarian Roma couple too destitute to bring her up. Given these revelations, then, why has the media continued to refer to Maria in the cases of Ben Needham and Madeleine McCann?

Essentially, we are discussing two entirely separate situations. On the one hand, we have two suspected child abductions; on the other, the failure to adhere to the process of official adoption. Unlike the McCanns, Marias parents were aware of their daughters whereabouts. There is nothing (other than speculation) to suggest that Maria was bought or sold or that she came to any harm. Yet the baby snatching Gypsy stereotype remains. Just days after Marias discovery, two blonde Roma children were seized by the Gardai in Ireland and carted off for DNA testing. Both were proven to be the biological children of their parents - victims of racist speculation and guesswork. Whats more, their ordeal marked the start of a media witchhunt against the Romani people.

It seems perfectly acceptable to find 'brown' Roma children living in an impoverished slum, but deeply shocking to discover a 'blonde angel' amid the destitution that blights the lives of the Romani people.

The suspected abduction of Ben Needham, a 21-month-old boy who disappeared from the island of Kos in 1991, has long been linked to the Roma. Again, this connection has been built on speculation alone: there has never been any evidence to suggest that Ben was abducted by the Roma. Nevertheless, his family has this week described how the discovery of Maria - a Roma child who was informally adopted - has brought them hope. Predictably, photographs soon appeared of a fair-haired man thought to be living in a Roma community in Cyprus. The media was whipped into a frenzy had they, at long last, discovered an actual Gypsy abduction? The answer was, yet again, no. The young man in question handed himself in to authorities in Cyprus. His DNA results came back negative.

After four suspected abductions are proven false in just two weeks, just why are the media maintaining their futile accusations against the Roma? I suspect the media are bitterly disappointed by the outcome of Maria’s story – a case that was built on skin colour alone. A white Roma child deeply unsettles the notion of ‘whiteness’. Maria’s story made headlines because of the privileges that are associated with white skin. It seemed perfectly acceptable to find ‘brown’ Roma children living in an impoverished slum, but deeply shocking to discover a ‘blonde angel’ amongst the destitution that blights the lives of the Romani people. Upon learning that Maria was indeed Roma; her skin colour remained paramount to her future. She was not returned to her family - instead she remains in the care of a charity, possibly facing a future of institutions. Her Romani blood does not fit with conceptions of whiteness and now she has been thrust into a society that is so intolerant of the Romani people, she is certain to be stripped of her cultural identity.

With the media now uninterested in pursuing the story of a little Roma girl who is the victim of poverty, they have instead turned their attention to children more deserving of their time - Ben Needham and Madeleine McCann. What will become of little Maria, well likely never know; we will, however, no doubt be swamped with further hearsay and speculation about 12 million Romani people suspected of being prolific child abductors. As with all ethnicities there are good and bad people - some may be child abductors, but the majority are not. There are wicked people from all walks of life and to narrow the search for a missing child to one community holds very little benefit. Im not a parent and I do not know the pain of losing a child, yet one thing I know for certain is that the Needhams and McCanns answers wont be found in a futile Roma witchhunt.

By Filip Borev

Twitter: @pipogypopotamus

EarthMither Thu 31-Oct-13 16:48:44

I just wanted to thank Filip for this post, and also to thank MNHQ for hosting it - very thought-provoking. I read Filip's blog on a regular basis, and think he does an excellent job of advocating for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights, and in promoting greater understanding between the GRT and settled communities. Keep up the good work Filip.

quietlysuggests Thu 31-Oct-13 17:34:10

You are just 18? Wow, your clarity of thought and measured argument is allows no argument - you are right. Thank you.

Jakebullet Thu 31-Oct-13 17:44:52

Thank you for posting what I was thinking but unable to really put into woirds adequately.

Great post, thank you.

I am concerned that there seems to be a concerted witch hunt against Roma people at the moment. They are being blamed for a lot of society's ills, and stealing children is the repetition of an old, old slur.

It's all so sad. Rather than focusing on the widespread racism and discrimination Roma people are suffering at the moment we are focusing on fairy stories and monster tales.

I have a little blonde girl and I find the 'angel' stuff very disturbing. It is like my DD is worth more in terms of child protection because of the way she looks. Deeply worrying.

I agree that you are a wonderful writer Filip.

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Thu 31-Oct-13 19:43:10

Filip, a great post, and I'm looking forward to reading your blog. So much mainstream racism floating around, it seems that racism towards Roma is the last acceptable (in law and on the street) racism.

Here's to the many wonderful, committed and fiercely protective Roma mums that I've met. Mainstream society could learn so much from them thanks

edam Thu 31-Oct-13 20:05:00

Very thought-provoking. Thanks for posting your blog here Filip.

Pistillate Thu 31-Oct-13 20:26:03

Great blog, filip borev, and I am so glad to see such sensible stuff written at last... I have been fuming about the way this has been reported in the media. There are blonde Roma, paler and darker Roma, just like there are variations in any ethnic group. Why do the media want different groups to be defined so narrowly? It's so divisive, and like pipopotMus says, it's really tough if you don't look like you belong to your family.

DrankSangriaInThePark Thu 31-Oct-13 20:39:36

That's it, isn't it Free- because it's "only" Roma, and because it's always been the stuff of legend, it's somehow still OK to be racist about the people.

Replace the word Roma with "black" or "Irish" and wait for the outcry.

Also very true and thought-provoking about the "blonde angel" element. Only last week on the threads about this, there were the kneejerk comments about her looks. And whoop-de, she turns out to be Roma herself and had that terrified look on her face not because she'd been abducted by Roma but because she'd been dragged away from her "adoptive" parents.

I was left open-mouthed at an (Italian) interview on TV last night- the politician accepted that it was wrong to accuse the Roma of child-stealing but said "however, they are all thieves and live off the fact that they are all thieves".

Filip- you may not have seen/heard this, but similar to the Ben Needham case, the Italians are now churning out (again) the hypothesis that 2 missing Italian children, Denise Pipitone and Angela Celentano, were also taken by Roma.

What I wonder, at a societal level, can be done to challenge this view? Sadly, very little I think.

A great blog post Filip, and I wish you well with your writing. smile

FantasticDay Thu 31-Oct-13 20:49:30 to commend this powerful piece - and your excellent pipopotamus blog.

JacqueslePeacock Thu 31-Oct-13 21:06:30

This is an excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly.

DoubleLifeIsALifeOfSorts Thu 31-Oct-13 22:08:00

Alot of parallels to the way Jews were scapegoated in the middle ages... Those foreigners who look different from 'us', have their own cultural identity and have been living amongst us for hundreds of years... The Jews got blamed for the plague amongst other things. And the Roma are evil child snatchers.

THese are base fears that should have been wiped out around the time we got more civilized (like, after the middle ages). Shocking that there wasn't an outcry when the media reported this in the first place

Shitemum Thu 31-Oct-13 22:30:35

I lived in the south of Spain for 19 years in an area where Romany families traditionally lived. On many occasions I saw Romany families with fair haired children. At the time I never thought -Oh, that can't be their child, they must have stolen it', but rather 'Oh, that's must be where the myth of the 'child-stealing Gypsies' comes from - their children are sometimes quite fair haired when very young.

Marylou2 Fri 01-Nov-13 01:20:55

I have two first hand experiences of Roma people. One lady approached me on a car park when I was pregnant and threatened to "curse" me and my unborn child unless I gave her money. I was terrified and ended up giving her £20. The second was a camp of Roma who parked near my companies HQ and threw a brick at my windscreen as I drove into work.

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Fri 01-Nov-13 06:57:13

MaryLou don't forget about all the Roma you interact with on a daily basis, whose ethnicity isn't obvious confused

Marylou2 Fri 01-Nov-13 07:17:53

Oh well hey, that makes it OK then!

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Fri 01-Nov-13 07:22:56

Just reminding you of the bigger picture. I've had many interactions with Roma and haven't once been threatened. At times Roma have made up approx 30% of my weekly interactions. In the last decade I've been a victim of crime a few times, but never from a Roma.

DrankSangriaInThePark Fri 01-Nov-13 07:23:54

MaryLou2, both nasty experiences, but what is your point?

I was mugged by a Roma girl in Florence years ago.
I was mugged by a scaggy Manchester girl and held at knifepoint by a scaggy Manchester bloke.
My downstairs (Italian) neighbour apparently cursed me. Not Roma as far as I know. Just an ad hoc fortune teller......

The plural of anecdote isn't data remember.....

Marylou2 Fri 01-Nov-13 08:02:11

Sorry I shared my experience. I see the bullies are out in force.Goodbye.

EarthMither Fri 01-Nov-13 08:08:59

Challenging prejudice and querying sweeping generalisations does not equal "bullying". Perhaps you need to do some more reading around this topic.

DrankSangriaInThePark Fri 01-Nov-13 08:20:58

Don't be so silly Marylou.

And please don't derail an interesting and thought-provoking (hopefully) blog post with name-calling just because (thankfully) the vast majority of people don't agree with your prejudices.

Jakebullet Fri 01-Nov-13 08:59:10

Marylou, you met two crappy people who happened to be Roma. Have you never been victim of a crime from non-Roma people. I know I have......and the behaviours I see from drunken youngsters in a Saturday night tells me you cannot generalise about any one race.

On the other hand I once drove past a gypsy camp and a young lad spat at my car.......the whole camp must therefore be awful people eh? hmm

Jakebullet Fri 01-Nov-13 09:01:13

Marylou, you met two crappy people who happened to be Roma. Have you never been victim of a crime from non-Roma people. I know I have......and the behaviours I see from drunken youngsters in a Saturday night tells me you cannot generalise about any one race.

On the other hand I once drove past a gypsy camp and a young lad spat at my car.......the whole camp must therefore be awful people eh? hmm

And arf @"bullies" ....did you mean the people who had a different opinion and challenged your prejudices?

sara11272 Fri 01-Nov-13 09:13:02

An interesting blog, and a perspective I hadn't really considered before, so thank you.

I do think, though, that the shock at Maria was less about 'how awful for a blonde child to be living in this squalor' and more about 'how awful that a child who has potentially been taken from her rightful parents and life is instead living in this squalor' - which is a different issue.

BonzoDooDah Fri 01-Nov-13 10:03:55

Very interesting blog. Thanks for sharing. I've been shocked by the immediate assumption by the media at the guilt of the Roma family. And my lasting thoughts are sadness for the poor little girl dragged from her family and flashed in front of a world-wide media circus. By family I mean this Roma family - the people she calls mum and dad .... even before DNA tests etc you have to ask just in whose best interests is it that this child is removed from her family?
So it now emerges that this is an unofficial adoption - so these people ARE her family now and all she knows. Poor little four year old, taken away to "the authorities" who no doubt speak a different language and with no idea when she'll see her family again.
Ironic really isn't it that the media are screaming about "gypsy abductions" yet the Greek Government have now stolen a child from the Romas.

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Fri 01-Nov-13 10:25:37

I feel that Maria was used as a weapon against the Roma, and as a Roma girl she has simply vanished from the news. Her whole life has been turned upside down, she was the collateral damage sad

littlewarrior Fri 01-Nov-13 11:02:41

Such a great blog- thank you. My blood is boiling over the blatent racism of the tabloids towards the Roma community at any opportunity. Millions up in arms over the apparent abduction of poor Madeleine McMann even though she was left home alone by her parents and then suddenly it became acceptable for authorities to stroll into a gypsy encampment and remove any children that did not fit their definition of what a gyspy should look like. I cannot help feeling that the whole McCann case propaganda machine has got so out of control that it does not care who it takes down in it's wake as long as it shames anyone who dares to stand in its way. Thus these perpetuated myths of gypsies lurking in every corner do wonders for collective paranoia and reinforce the idea that Madeleine was abducted even though it's been widely proved there was no sign of forced entry.
Isn't it time to look hard at ourselves and these stereotypes?
If Maria's parents had been the ones that went out drinking and left their kids at home alone they would be imprisioned and there would be an international outrcry. But it seems child neglect is an unthinkable scenario if the parents are attractive and successful with respectable jobs.

Treadmillmom Fri 01-Nov-13 11:30:09

Fantastic blog Filip Borev, well written.
I am of Jamaican origin and my husband is white English, I sarcastically commented to him what a comfort it is that the authorities will care so much for the welfare of our blond blue eyed daughter but not give a hoot about are brown eyed black haired one!

Catchhimatwhat Fri 01-Nov-13 12:59:43

Great post.
I was very disturbed by the media reports of this case.

Helpyourself Fri 01-Nov-13 13:54:26

Great blog post, thank you.
Without wishin to minimise the real prejudice and disadvantage of the Roma, I'm not sure that this is an example of it.
The disappearing child is a mythical saw of all societies. That the child is living with happily with another family is a better outcome than dead or trafficked.
I see the 'stolen by gypsies' story as a comforting fairy tale- the only comforting resolution of every parent's worse nightmare.

BabCNesbitt Fri 01-Nov-13 15:21:09

But isn't that still "othering" the Roma, Helpyourself? These are real people who've had their adoptive child taken away from them, not players in a comforting fairy tale for us non-Roma parents.

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Fri 01-Nov-13 15:34:54

Helpyourself - if a White couple had a child that looked nothing like them, do you think the police would instantly take that child prior to investigation and then look through the homes of all surrounding White families to ensure all their children looked like them? Do you think the news would be filled with stories of problems with White people and commenters full of disparaging comments against White people they've encountered who were thieves or violent (and mixing them up with similarly slurred people - the slur that contains several ethnicity groups, some related and many not so). The original search of the area Maria was found in was based on prejudice and disadvantage, the media's treatment of it firmly placed within it, and the current events dealing Maria and her siblings are solely because of it.

Maria's biological parents have now had several of their other children now taken away because of the investigation into Maria (against the Convention of the Rights of the Child which both Bulgaria and Greece are signed up to and have both broken in regards to the Roma children in their countries, and Bulgaria in the taking of these children for nothing other than poverty and their ethnicity).

The reason that Roma and many other peoples are still slurred and put other myths is because the representation of people within these groups is out of their control and hasn't moved on in centuries, and people within these groups are still legally disadvantage (there are still countries where being Roma is essentially illegal) to the point that making their own representation is difficult. Even in the age of the internet and in Western countries, Roma have a great difficulty getting heard, their stories completely ignored in media and in education which then breeds problems in social and legal situations.

I mean, Roma are still hardly recognised as Holocaust victims despite having lost 90% of their population to it, their enslavement in Eastern Europe and sold into slavery alongside many others in the atlantic slave trade ignored in history books, and their current plight as one of the most targetted populations for the modern slave trade and traffiking because the people who actually do this know that the police ignore when they call for help. Recognised as one of the most impoverished populations in Europe, they still have the blame put on them for everything and the legalised hate is ignored - walled ghettos are being put up and they are still ignored even while we remember and cry "never again", it's brushed aside with vicious fictitious stories built by those who wanted to oppress them and spread without a second thought by the media.

DoubleLifeIsALifeOfSorts Fri 01-Nov-13 15:50:23

Spork really good post

Thank you for this blog post. I know almost nothing about aroma culture - am going to head to Filip 's blog.

Aroma?? Ffs autocorrect!

Helpyourself Fri 01-Nov-13 19:17:43

My intention isn't to minimise, deny or dismiss any of the injustices and mistreatment of Roma people. And I don't for one moment think that the neighbours who reported Maria or the child in Ireland were motivated by anything but prejudice.
I'm just saying that I believe that the original 'child snatcher' myth is born out of a need to believe that disappeared children weren't suffering or dead.

Helpyourself Fri 01-Nov-13 19:20:06

Babc it is 'othering'. I'm not saying that its ok.

coolbeans Fri 01-Nov-13 21:14:11

It is surprising to see the depths of racism towards the Roma that these cases have uncovered. I, personally, find it really unsettling to see. I'm black, (but along with with my white partner), have managed to produce 2 blond, blue eyed little boys with olive skin. When we go through passport controls, I let my husband take the children. Mostly because I get quizzed and held up - what's his date of birth? where was he born? how old is he? what are his middle names? etc. - I shrug it off because trafficking exists and they are just doing their job. But these stories still make me super uncomfortable and send a shiver down my spine.

TUL105 Fri 01-Nov-13 21:37:22

Over 60 years ago, the Roma arrived at the family farm. They adored my Mum who was only about 18 months old. They asked my Grandmother for her and she agreed to hand my Mum over the next day. When they came to collect her, my Aunty clutched her sister protectively and refused to hand her over. My Uncles also refused to let her go. The Roma left empty handed saying they could see Mum was loved by her siblings. The point is though, they ASKED for her, they didn't take her. How many children were "taken" by Roma early last century, because their parents were too poor to care for them so it was easier to say "oh the gypos took them" instead of admitting they handed them over willingly?

FreeAtLastAtLongLast Fri 01-Nov-13 23:05:57

Not forgetting the 1000s of Roma children that were taken from their parents in the 20th century and adopted out, because they were Roma.

Pliudev Sat 02-Nov-13 09:04:18

Maybe the point is that no children should be living in such squalor? The Roma have been subjected to prejudice for centuries and the way the media responded inflamed the issue (as it probably meant to). There are good and bad in every community but we should have got past assuming 'others' evil based on isolated incidents. What does concern me is that children are being used to beg (as 'Maria' reportedly was) and aren't in school getting an education that will,hopefully, lift them out of poverty.

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Sat 02-Nov-13 10:53:28

If Greece or Bulgaria allowed Roma children to have a normal education rather than extremely substandard separate education for them, then maybe they could lift themselves out of poverty. But they don't. Even for the Roma living outside of the ghettos, their children are pretty much all placed in special schools purely for being Roma to keep them out of mainstream education.

No child should be living in squalor, but the Convention on the Rights of the Child - which all of Europe is signed up to - does not allow children to be taken away purely on the grounds of poverty (or ethnicity), the state is meant to ensure families have the ability to support them. But Greece, Bulgaria, pretty much all of the Eastern Europe legally segregate and refuse such things to its Roma citizens (and some even try to deny them citizenship, which denies them any said rights). They should be brought to account on their illegal and disgusting treatment which results in these children and their families living in legally enforced squalor.

Spork I didn't realise Roma were enslaved as part of the Atlantic slave trade, it's shocking that their story isn't told.

DoubleLifeIsALifeOfSorts Sat 02-Nov-13 15:05:30

Special schools? On what grounds would they do that? And why?

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Sat 02-Nov-13 17:05:24

Sunshine - it's isn't really spoken about, much like we don't discuss which African nations were affected or which American Indigenous nations were also enslaved. Portugal particularly bought thousands and thousands of Roma from Eastern Europe (where they were enslaved for quite a while previous) and sent them to their colonies, enslaved, and traded them with other enslaved populations so they ended up in many areas around the world. Actually, their history of early marriage for girls is traced back directly to the slave trade (because unmarried girls were worth a lot more and for many enslavers would be the ones they grabbed, they were very rarely "real" marriages in a physical sense for years and years, but the paperwork that they were married was barrier to them being stolen). A lot of their story is ignored. It's quite painful that they get blamed and labeled as child snatchers as Roma history is partially built upon the pain of having their children stolen by those in power.

Double - Because they are Roma and their parents aren't educated enough to otherwise fight or support them to challenge it. Perpetuating a cycle of poverty and oppression. The governments often claim it's because they can't fit in or socialize in mainstream school, but really they are never given a chance and in places where they are denied citizenship, they can be denied formal education altogether. A lot of people are fighting this, but it is a real struggle that is being ignored for fairytales.

MrsDeVere Sat 02-Nov-13 19:08:07

Thanks for this.
The lack of international outrage regarding the recent child removals had me bemused and angry.

Why was hardly an eyebrow raised when these children were removed in a way that would never be sanctioned in other circumstances?

Why were the brown kids left in 'abusive' circumstances whilst the fair ones 'rescued'?

Why is it possible to remove children from Roma families on unsubstantiated hunches whilst even the most vulnerable non Roma families are afforded the protection of the HRA and local laws?

How come, even when the proof of parentage of the Irish children was produced and there is no real proof of anything untoward in the Greek case, has nothing been done to set things right?

Disgusting and disturbing.

But hey if a Roma girl threatened someone once its fine to steal their children and cause far reaching distress and trauma yeah?

Mimishimi Sat 02-Nov-13 20:42:41

My brother and his wife both have dark hair/dark eyes although DB's hair and eyes are a shade or two lighter than me or my other brother's. Thanks to a strong blonde/blue-eyed gene in Dad's family they have a daughter with these features. She is completely blonde/blue eyed. This case has me slightly worried that the same could potentially happen to them, at least at the accusatory stage.

DoubleLifeIsALifeOfSorts Sat 02-Nov-13 21:38:28

Bloody hell that is shocking - silly really I don't know why that's shocked me more than anything else, I guess because it's so institutionalized, blatant... Special schools... Ugh!

The primary school I went to had kids who just staged for a term whilst traveling, they 'fitted in' just bloody fine, (caveat: no idea what ethnicity they were as was v young at the time)

Off to google more on this...

duchesse Sat 02-Nov-13 21:51:39

The case of this little girl is deeply troubling to me. My personal feeling is that she absolutely should be returned to her adoptive parents and her situation regularised. Her birth parents evidently trusted them enough to look after her and they seem to have done as good a job as they can in their precarious situation. Unless they have concerns about her welfare in the encampment where she found the kindest thing to do for her would be to return her to there and the only people she knows. It just smacks rather a lot of what happened in Aboriginal settlements in Australia (cf Rabbit Proof Fence)

SweetCarolinePomPomPom Sun 03-Nov-13 14:04:23

I have just watched this documentary today. It's very interesting and it puts a slightly more realistic slant on things than our young blogger friend, I think.

I admire his passion but I think he's rather blinkered.

Do watch all of it if you have a spare hour - don't just comment after watching ten minutes.

MrsDeVere Sun 03-Nov-13 14:29:10

So why are children not routinely removed from south american, Indian, Asian families 'just in case' Sweet?

These children make up the vast majority of trafficked children.

Why are we so stuck on the thieving gyppos myth?

No one is condoning trafficking.

What has trafficking got to do with the cases in the news recently?

Nothing. Thats what. Not.a.thing.

The children were removed because the sight of them set off the inherent racism of the reporting individuals.

Blonde, innocent, valued child living with brown, wicked, worthless people.

They must be rescued.

Only none of it was true was it? Even in the Greek case were the child was not a biological child she was not a 'valued' child either. Just the offspring of scum, one step up from the Roma themselves.

And check out the comments under that Documentary. They tell you more about this issue than the documentary does.

MerryMarigold Mon 04-Nov-13 11:24:35

Great article, well written and thought out. I also can't believe you are only 18!

I hope someone is campaigning to get Maria back to her adoptive parents if she was happy there.

jeee Mon 04-Nov-13 11:39:37

"Us gipsies don't steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you're naughty. We've enough of our own mostly." From Five Children and It.

E Nesbit wrote this in 1902. I don't think our views on the Roma have moved on in over a century.

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