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buber.net > Basque > History > A Short History of the Basque Country
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A Short History of the Basque Country

by Martin de Ugalde

Archaeological and ethnographic findings indicate that Basque [people] evolved from Cro-Magnon [...] in this area over a period dating from about 40,000 years ago until distinct features were acquired approximately 7,000 years ago. Two thousand years later the sheep, not native to these lands, was introduced and horse and cattle farming came into being, as shown by Adolf Staffe. These circumstances made it necessary for the people to travel periodically and cultural contacts were thus made.

This period in the history of the Basque people can only make sense if it is studied in conjunction with the cultures of the surrounding areas, in the basin of the River Ebro and the region of Aquitaine.

Jose Miguel de Barandiaran states "This area is of particular importance in Basque archaeology and linguistic history as it coincides with the area of seasonal migration of flocks in search of pastures in the Pyrenees and where Basque place names are found in general." Luis Michelena reports that the Basque language has been spoken by these peoples since around 6,000 B.C. Basque was spoken in the whole of South Aquitaine and eastwards, to inside Catalonia (proved by inscriptions and place names). From the sixth century B.C. Indo-European culture wiped out all the pre-Indo-European languages spoken in Europe up to that time, with the exception of the Basque language.

Serious cultural and political problems arose from the above circumstances.

Rand McNally's linguistic map and the Goetz's Universal History divide up the languages spoken in the world [I think he means Europe here - Blas] as follows: Germanic, Slavonic, Celtic, Romance, Mongol, along with those spoken by the Albanians, Arabs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Latvians, Berbers, Armenians, Caucasians, Iranians and Basques.

As far as religion is concerned the direction in which corpses were pointed leads us to believe there was some kind of sun worship.

This well-defined pre-historic Basque people began to feature in history. The worst thing that can happen to a people is for it not to write its own history as this means such a people is at the mercy of other historians. The first news of the Basque people comes to us through the ancient geographers, in particular Pliny and Ptolemy. The "Journey of Antoninus" mentions names that indicate that the land of the Basques extended, not only to Aquitaine in the north but also far down the River Ebro to the south.

P. Villasante says that the Basques, in calling themselves "Euskaldunak" (those who speak Basque [Euskera]) and the country "Euskalerria", i.e. Basque speaking country, are making cultural history in that it is the language that has moulded and given the Basque people a sense of unity, a sense of being a nation. Antonio Tovar comfirms this and explains the situation by saying that the Basques did not take part in the battles between Carthaginians and Romans; Silius Italicus refers to the fact that there were Basque soldiers in Hannibal's armies. The Basque only intervened to defend Sertorius, the Roman general who had shown respect for them. The relationship between Romans and Basques was cordial: Pompey founded Pompaelo, Pamplona, in the settlement that was Iruna (the city in Basque). Roman influence further north was less evident, however.

This meant that the Basque language survived in its entirety, with its multiple influences.

In the third and fifth centuries the Basques defended themselves against the Barbarians who came south to the Iberian Peninsula. After fighting the Germanic Swabian tribes, they went into battle against the Visigoths. The latter gained several victories over the Basques and founded Victoriacum in the year 581 in the proximity of present day Victoria, which was in turn founded by Sancho the Wise on the site of the ancient settlement of Gasteiz.

The Basques moved to and fro on each side of their land of the Pyrenees and fought against the armies of Suintila, Recesvinto, and Wamba in the eighth century when Tarik disembarked in 711 with 7,000 Berber soldiers in what is now Gibraltar, and defeated the Goths.

This saved the Basques from both Gothic and Moslem occupation.

Christianity probably penetrated the Basque country in the third and fourth centuries from the south. It may also have been introduced from the north. The centre of Christian activity may be taken as Calahorra, in Pamplona, which had a Bishop as far back as the times of the Visigoths. Oca had the Bishop of the Autrigones. In the north were Eauze, Aire, Bazas, Oloron, Lescar, and Dax. Paganism probably died out well before the eleventh century, perhaps, as sensed by Navarro Villoslada, even in the eighth century; although pagan and Christian practices lived side by side "as late as the downfall of the Visigoths". Manaricua states "It would be absurd to think that paganism ceased to exist completely from the moment Christianity began to penetrate these lands. If a Christian inscription does not authorize us to say that the Basque country was converted to Christianity, then neither does a pagan inscription lead us to the conclusion that the Basque country continued to be pagan."

The Basques, who did not constitute a monolithic political unity, but rather a people with a certain amount of confederate organization, began to establish themselves as a political unit, with the Duchy of Vasconia, which covered the area from the River Ebro, upwater from Saragossa, to the shores of the Garrone and which was established at the beginning of the seventh century, according to Ildefonso de Gurruchaga. Fredegaire, a French chronicler of the period, reports that the first Duke of Vasconia was Genial (602), imposed by the Franks. The Basques then became independent and at the beginning of the ninth century the Kingdom of Pamplona was established under King Inigo de Aritza. At this time battles were still taking place against the Franks to the north and the Arabs to the south. Kink Inigo was of the Iniguez family, who were much opposed to the territorial possessions of the Franks south of the Pyrenees, and he contributed greatly to the unification of the country.

This Kingdom of Pamplona was later to be known as the Kingdom of Navarre.

By then it had become a smaller territory, where the people with classical Basque features were settled. This region corresponded more or less to the area occupied by the present-day Basque Country.

When the boundaries were drawn in 1016 between Navarre and the County of Castile, what would now be the Basque country was included in Navarre. The reign of Sancho VII the Strong was the last in the line of Basque monarchies beginning with that of Inigo or Eneko de Aritza. The line lasted four centuries until such time as Guipuzcoa, Alava, and Vizcaya broke away from the Kingdom amid a difficult political situation and became integrated in Castile under a treaty in 1200.

The incorporation of these lands into Castile came about as the result of personal treaties with the King.

Navarre was invaded by Castile joined by Pope Julius II, Henry VIII of England, Maximilian of Austria, and Ferdinand the Catholic. The Castilian, Catholic king said that this conquest was only a wartime one (with France). However, when he made peace with Louis XII in 1513, he kept the land by force and swore to respect its sovereignty, the Statues of Navarre, under a Viceroy. This was registered in the Cortes of Burgos "united on an equal basis, each retaining (Castile and Navarre) its ancient character in laws, territory, and government."

The Statutes governed the independence of the Basque regions.

This was the origin of the Basque Statute System.

This agreement was the same in the four regions of the Peninsula: Alava, Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, and now Navarre as in the continental regions with England and France. The agreements were ratified with each new king who came to the throne. The political union did not mean that these areas comprised one single kingdom, or that the Basques were the subjects of these kings but that they were governed directly by the Biltzar in what is now the French Basque country, and by the General Assemblies in those areas with Spanish administration.

"Many lords and great kings of Spain", says Adrian Celaya, "signed and adhered to these texts which differ greatly from the usual practice of the period". Quoting Lemonauria and Balparda, he adds "The Statutes of Vizcaya in essence are the Statutes of Man". These Statutes or Rules of Freedom or Systems of Sovereignty or Autonomy have led the Basques to fight for their rights over the course of history.

When the Basques surrendered after the first Carlist War in 1839, they did so on the promise that their Statutes would be respected. The promise was not kept, however. The Bill put forward by the Government stipulating that "The Statutes of the Basque Provinces and of Navarre are herein confirmed", contained a pitfall in that it went on to say "without prejudice to the constitutional unity", a constitutional unity that had not existed up to that time. Nevertheless, this did not hinder the proclamation of the decree on 16th November 1839, under which the Basque judiciaries and legislature were withdrawn, meaning de facto that for the first time during the course of history from 1200 onwards, Basque juridical and constitutional unity was established.

The Basque defeat in the war allowed for the transfer of the Spanish Customs to Hendaye in 1841. Up to then the Customs had been in Miranda and Vitoria, the Frontier of the Basque Country with Castile.

The Basques also lost the second Carlist War and this defeat meant the advent of the Law of Abolition of the Statutes (almost all that still remained of the sovereignty), proclaimed in July 1876. This law brought in compulsory national service in the Spanish Army and the payment of taxes, although this was in fact through a private Economic Agreement.

The Basque nationalist movement, inspired by Sabino de Arana y Goiri, founder of Eusko Alderdi Jeltzalea/Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) came into being to oppose these outrages. Another movement was also being founded at this time in Navarre under the auspices of Arturo Campion and Juan de Iturralde. Thus, when the Spanish Republic, established on 14th April 1931, granted autonomy to Catalonia, the Basque nationalists, inspired by Sabino de Arana, and led by Jose Antonio de Aguirre, began a large scale, well planned campaign for Basque autonomy: Meeting of Local Corporations on 15th June 1931 in Estella: Referendum on the Statute at the local level in 1932, in which the Nationalists obtained an overwhelming majority in Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya (245 municipalities in favour and 23 against).

This result proved negative for the co-existence of the four regions, with which the war of 1936 could possibly have been avoided.

Nevertheless, events were to be so in 1932 and a year later the local corporations of Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya were consulted again. Victory was gained by the Autonomists and a plebiscite was then held, the result being 82% in favour. The decision regarding the Basque Statute had already been rendered when the military uprising came about. This divided the Basques into two, and when the Government of the Republic officially granted the Autonomy of the Basque Country, it was only able to be applied in the provinces of Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya. On 8th October 1936 Jose Antonio de Aguirre was sworn in as first Lehendakari (President). The Autonomous Government's immediate action was to pronounce the Ikurrina or Basque flag as official and to create the Basque Army and the Basque University. The Basques fought heroically against oppressive international troops, especially after the great offensive that began with the bombarding of Durango on 31st December 1937 (520 dead and 730 wounded between this offensive and that of 2nd April). Then on 26th April came the merciless, criminal bombardment of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe to test their burnt earth tactics. This was the first bombardment of its kind in the world and caused 1,654 dead and 889 wounded; the penetration of the lines, and the occupation of Bilbao on 19th June.

The Basque troops surrendered in the prison of Dueso. Numerous executions at the hands of the firing squads were carried out and prisons and concentrations camps were set up. Lehendakari Aguirre continued with the Basque troops who were fighting in Catalonia until he left for France on foot and in the company of President Companys.

The Basque Government established itself in Paris and resolved many of the problems facing Basque exiles. When Aguirre died in 1960, he was replaced by Jesus Maria de Leizaola.

The Basque Exile: After the first surge of exiles at the beginning of 1936 throught Irun and across the Bidasoa, a second mass exit took place at the end of the fighting in Basque territory in 1937. At the anxious request put forward by Aguirre to the deomcratic nations, children were evacuated to avoid the tragedy and ris of the last to months of resistance. Thus, between 6th May and 12th June, seven days before the fall of Bilbao, various ships set sail carrying children accompanied by their teachers, priests, and other aid: 3,301 to Belgium, 3,957 to England, 245 to Switzerland, 1,362 to the USSR, 22,234 to France, 105 to Denmark and 6,200 to Catalonia, making a total of 37,304. The last train for Santander left Bilbao on 18th June and about 80,000 people sailed from the Cantabrian capital, mostly old people, women and children, and 8,000 wounded.

All the above took place during the second period of exile.

The third exile was from Catalonia to France and from France to America. Official Basque Government information estimates that over 150,000 Basques spent some time in exile in France. This is an enormous number if one takes into account that the entire population of the four Basque provinces of the Spanish State in 1936 was only 1,300,000.

Political life in the Basque Country between the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and the end of the Second World War in 1945 may be summed up as follows:

An intelligence network between prisoners and the Basque Government in Paris, comprising 21 people in the four Basque regions, was uncovered by Franco's police at the end of 1940. The trial was held on 3rd July 1941. The High Court requested 8 death sentences. The final sentences were 30 years imprisonment for 6, 25 years for 7, 20 for 2, and 1 acquittal. There were five women among those sentenced. One death sentence was passed and the Alavan, Luis Alava was executed on 6th May 1943. When the Second World War broke out, Lehendakari Aguirre was in Belgium as the Nazis invaded this country. After many adventures in Germany, he managed to escape to Sweden and from there sailed to Brasil, finally arriving in New York where he managed to assemble part of his Government in 1942. Joseba de Rezola organized a Resistance cell in Madrid at the service of the Basque Government against the Franco regime. Rezola was arrested but managed to flee from the Guardia Civil across the Bidasoa.

Lehendakari Aguirre returned to Europe at the end of the Second World War in 1945. He established contact with the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ), organized links between the Basque Resistance in France and that in Spain, with headquarters in Donostia (San Sebastian), led by Juan de Ajuriaguerra. In 1945 the Treaty of Bayonne was signed by all the parties involved with the Basque country and "who had fought for democracy or who were prepared to do so" (Irujo). Those featured were: EAJ/PNV (Basque Nationalist Party), ANV, the Basque Communist Party, UGT, Euskadi Mendigoizale Batza, Republican Left, Socialist Central Committee of Euskadi, Federal Republican Party, CNT, and ELA/STV. Out of this treaty came the Basque Advisory Council, whose task was to organize the groups who worked underground inside the Basque Country for the Basque Government. Later the Resistance Assembly was formed. This organization represented the Basque Government through a board inside the Basque Country. The differences with the PSOE (Spanish Workers' Socialist Party) became evident at this time when an idea proposed in 1940 was put into practice whereby all the parties comprising the Basque Government were called upon to make a declaration of nationality. The socialist Councillor Toyos refused to do this. His fellow party member, Santiago Aznar made the declaration and was expelled from the Spanish Workers' Socialist Party. The republican parties accepted this declaration of Basque nationality.

A Basque Battalion, led by Commander Ordoki, the "Gernika" fought against the Germans.

Among the many activities in which he was involved as leader of the Basque Government, Aguirre played an extremely important role in the organization and development of Christian Democracy and the European Movement. Javier de Landaburu was a key figure in European Christian Democracy, a representative of the Basque Team, as Vice President of the Basque Government when Aguirre died, until his untimely death in 1963. Joseba de Rezola then took over power. There was some preparation for armed struggle in 1945 when United States instructors trained some Basque groups and in the following year on the frontier under the auspices of Lino Lazkano. This prospect lasted until the Americans replaced their "antifascism" by "anticommunism". This was a product of the cold war and was the basic agreement between the Allied Forces and the Soviet Union. Here it was quite clear that who was favoured was Franco. The General Strike of 1947 came in the wake of the repression in 1945 and 1946 of the efforts of reconstitution of the Basque Nationalist Party and the ELA/STV. The strike broke out in Vizcaya and extended to Guipuzcoa and around 60,000 workers were involved. The Resistance Council spread the news around the world and informed the United Nations. The repression was extremely severe. The Basque socialists accepted the terms of the Iberian Confederation after the recent common struggle. "They confirmed even more vehemently their support of the Government and their respect for the Basque Nationalist Party." In 1947 Laureano Lasa published an article in the Gazette of the Centre for Socialist Studies of Euskadi, in which he emphasized the favourable attitude of the socialists towards the Iberian Confederation in the Congress of 1919, in the process of law of the Republic. Two months later, in September, Euskadi Socialista published an article signed by "E.G." stating in explicit terms that "the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ/PNV) was the leading party in the Basque Country, that it was extremely popular and enjoyed support from all social classes. The prime task of the socialists was, therefore, to aim at reconciling in a suitable manner the Basque privilege with the prerrogatives of the Central State..." The Communist Party was forced to leave the Basque Government after its break with the Government of the Republic in 1947 with the attack on Indalecio Prieto, to whom the communists attributed a pro-American trend in the Atlantic Charter and in conversations with the monarchists regarding the possible substitution of Franco by Juan de Borbon. 1951 witnessed a strike involving 250,000 workers. The repression was extremely severe and dismembered the Basque organizations. The Americans broke the theoretical boycott of the democratic nations against Franco by granting him a loan of 62.5 million dollars in exchange for United States bases in Spain.

ETA was born in the summer of 1959 out of EKIN and EG. When Lehendakari Aguirre died in 1960, some members of ETA were present at the funeral. The organization praised the new Lehendakari, Leizaola (No. 12 Zutik - Caracas). "Although ETA has broken off relations with the Basque Nationalist Party, it hopes to return to the great abertzale (patriots) party" (Zutik, April 1961 - special edition). The event of the unsuccessful derailing of the train occurred, marking the beginning of the second phase (Zutik - Bayonne - 20th November). The First Assembly began to prepare itself at the end of the summer of 1961 at a time when it had only a few militants. The Second Assembly was held in Landes, north of Bayonne in 1963. The Third and Fourth Assemblies: in the history of ETA the rifts in the organization generally represent important landmarks as each time a new Assembly formed. When there is a complete break, two new assemblies are established. Kemen was brought out as the internal publication of ETA and the organization changed its definition of "a patriotic non-confesionary movement" to "It is not possible for nationalism to be the sole basis for patriotic struggle", and "the close connection between the Basque bourgeoisie, the Franco regime and foreign oppression is highly condemned". "ETA's only arms are contacts with reality and its unreserved identification with the cause of the oppressed. Nothing else is needed in the struggle for the national and popular liberation of the Basque Country." From this point on an increasing emphasis on Marxist concepts can be observed. The organization began to make references to the "need to begin requisitioning to support the organization" (Zutik 32, August 1965). The Navarrese group "Tratxe" joined forces with ETA as "their ideas coincided one hundred per cent"; The Aberri-Eguna (Day of the Homeland) in 1966 was held on the bridges of Hendaye in order to "break away from any commitments involving the folkloric vocation of the Basque Nationalist Party in Gasteiz". ETA Autonomous Group: functioned from 1966-1968 led by "El Cabra".

The first death at the hands of ETA took place near Tolosa. Txabi Echebarrieta opened fire on the Guardia Civil at a road block, killing the agent Pardines and dying himself - 7th June 1968. On 2nd August of the same year ETA killed the police inspector Meliton Manzanas in Irun. There was now no going back on the fight to the death. In 1970 the Trial of Burgos took place. The court passed sentence on 13 defendants accused of belong to the Spanish Workers' Socialist Party in Vizcaya, among them Rubial, who had spent many years in prison since the end of the war. Joseba Elosegui threw himself in front of General Franco in San Sebastian as a human torch to protest against the burning of Guernica. Heavy sentences were passed in Madrid on five Basque militants: Sabino de Arana, Francisco Javier Bareno, Ramon Iruzalde, Francisco Eskubi, and Eusebio Irarte in November 1970. The following events were of vital importance: 1) The Sixth Assembly of ETA began on 31st August; 2) The German Consul was kidnapped in San Sebastian; and 3) the Supreme Court-Martial in Burgos.

The Court-Martial of Burgos: For the Basques, whatever their ideology, 1970 was the year of Burgos.

The trial involving 16 Basques made news worldwide and soon went from a judgement of the Franco regime to a judgement of totalitarian fascism. Here important contributions were made by the people with their mobilizations, democratic organizations all over the world and exiled Basque institutions - the Basque Government and key figures in the Basque Nationalist Party: Irujo at international contact level, and Leizaola and Joseba Rezola through their visit to Rome: contacts with the Christian Democrat Government. The two politicians were received at the Vatican and were able to explain their position: the trial was to be held behind closed doors, on the basis of the Concordat, because there were priests among the accused. Only the Church could open the door. The door was opened. It will never be known whether this meeting was the cause but the fact remains that the door was opened. Thus, international reporters were allowed in and the whole world came to know of the trial and the circumstances surrounding it. Death sentences were passed but pardons were granted on the following day.

There were 100 Basque prisoners at 31st December 1971.

In 1972 the Aberri-Eguna was celebrated in Bayonne on a joint basis. That year ETA became revitalized with the forces of "Egibatasuna" (United Truth), the key figure of which was Inaki Mugica Arregui.

In December 1973 Carrero Blanco was killed in an attack by ETA-V "Ezkerra". In 1975 the State of Exception was declared for Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya (April). The Anti-Terrorist Law was brought into Force in August of the same year. The cruellest of turtures began to take place. The priest Eustasio Erquicia was the focus of much attention because of the brutality to which he was subjected. A violent action was directed at the Basque Church with the arrest of Monseigneur Anoveros, the Bishop of Bilbao. An international scandal arose when death penalties were requested for Garmendia, Otaegui, and Juan Paredes Mano, "Txiki". Strikes of great importance took place. In the end, "Txiki", Otaegui, and three members of the FRAP were executed. These events marked the beginning of a new phase of action/repression in the middle of which came the death of Franco on 20th November 1975.

When Franco died, there were 500 members and supporters of just one branch of ETA alone in prison (the politico-military branch). The KAS (Socialist Patriotic Commission) came into being. The kidnappings continued. The Seventh Assembly of ETA was held in September 1976. The first contacts between ETA-PM (politico-military) and the Government were established and ETA-M (military) had an official observer. The truce lasted for four months, until the death of Itxaso on 7th March 1977 and the shooting of two members of Guardia Civil (Spanish rural police) in Mondragon on 13th March. The truce continued until 24th May, the beginning of the electoral campaign. In the meantime, the EAJ/PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) held its first meeting in the Anoeta Pelota Court in San Sebastian and on 19th January the Ikurrina or Basque National Flag was legalized. A second amnesty was pronounced. At the beginning of April more key ETA prisoners were released but the organization held out for the release of all its members in prison.

On 20th May the central Government signed the decree of total Amnesty.

The first democratic general elections were held on 15th June 1977 - a first step towards a political map of the Basque Country. Navarre was not able to be included in the first Basque General Council, the first sitting of which was presided over by Juan de Ajuriaguerra. Ramon Rubial Cavia later took over Ajuriaguerra's task. On 6th December 1978 the "Referendum for the Spanish Constitution" was held, with "abstention" or "no's" on the part of the majority of the Basque voters. The Statute of Guernica: the project was approved in San Sebastian on 24th December 1978 and sanctioned on 29th December in the Casa de Juntas (Meeting House) at Guernica. After the General Elections (1st March 1979) and the local elections (3rd April), the new Assembly of the Basque Country comprised the following members:

PNV      16
UCD       7
PSOE      6
EE        1

As HB (4) did not attend, the EAJ/PNV had the majority.

Garaikoetxea took up the Presidency of the new General Council on 16th June 1979, and changes in the councillorships came into effect. The Referendum to approve the Statute of Autonomy for the Basque Country took place on 25th October 1979. Garaikoetxea met Leizaola in the San Mames Football Stadium (Athletico de Bilbao) on 15th December and the elections for the Basque Parliament were held on 9th Marth 1980:

PNV:......207,400 votes - 40 %
HB:........85,000 votes - 16 %
PSOE:......74,700 votes - 14 %
EE:........40,300 votes -  8 %
UCD:.......34,700 votes -  8 %
AP:........29,900 votes -  6 %
PCE:.......24,900 votes -  5 %
EMK:........5,700 votes -  1 %

Thus, the new political map of the Basque Country (the ultimate goal of this SHORT HISTORY) was established (excluding Navarre) in democratic Spain, with Carlos Garaikoetxea as President.

Garaikoetxea was sworn in the presence of Lehendakari Leizaola on 9th April 1980, under the Tree of Guernica, as required by tradition and democratic rights. Garaikoetxea took the same oath as the former President had taken in the same place during the difficult moments of the war. Four days later, the head of the Spanish State, King Juan Carlos I, and the head of the Spanish Government, Adolfo Suarez, confirmed the appointment by Royal Decree. 15 days later Lehendakarai Garaikoetxea signed the fourteen decrees appointing his first Government:

Lehendakari: Carlos Garaikoetxea Urriza
Secretary to the Presidency: Javier Cano Moreno
Minister of Education: Pedro Miguel Etxenike Landiribar
Minister of Culture: Ramon Labayen Sansinenea
Minister of Justice: Carmelo Renobales Vivanco
Minister for Internal Affairs: Luis Maria Retolaza Ibarguengoitia
Minister of Finance: Pedro Luis Uriarte Santamarina
Minister of Employment: Mario Fernandez Pelaz
Minister of Industry: Javier Garcia Egotxeaga
Minister of Transport, Communications and Maritime Affairs: Jose Luis Robles Canibe
Minister of Territorial Policy and Public Works: Javier Lasagabaster Etxarri
Minister of Commerce: Carlos Blasco de Imaz
Minister of Health and Social Security: Jesus Javier Aguirre Bilbao
Minister of Agriculture: Felix Ormazabal Askasibar

The above were sworn in on 29th April 1980 in the Delegation of the Senorio de Vizcaya.

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