The Taliban And The Systematic Return To The Middle Ages – Analysis


Reconquering Afghanistan in a matter of weeks, the Taliban achieved their goal of subjecting the Afghan people to a medieval, ultra-Islamist regime with a raw body and a weak soul. After twenty years of attempted nation-building, the West left the country, abandoning the trust and hope of their Afghan allies.

It’s like déjà vu. More than a year after their return to power, the Taliban have unraveled one by one the measures introduced by successive governments over two decades. And so they have re-established an Islamic emirate, where Sharia law is now part of the daily life of the inhabitants.

Oil, drugs, fanaticism, terrorism, etc.: all the parameters make Afghanistan and this strategic area a real powder keg. For several months now, Kabul has been transposing all the apocalyptic fiction, from Game of Thrones to The Handmaid’s Tale, into its Taliban setting. And some see in the relationship of this Islam to women, to violence, and to religion a terrible “return to the Middle Ages”. The reality of the Afghan drama, however, deserves better than these facile analogies. The “medieval” insult – its use is rarely laudatory – goes beyond the Afghan case to designate any form of violence, but also any event or comment that would escape progressive rhetoric.

Women’s liberticidal measures 

Women in Afghanistan market. Photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, Wikimedia Commons.
Women in Afghanistan market. Photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard, Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past 15 months, violations of the human rights of women and girls have steadily worsened. Despite initial promises that women would be allowed to exercise their rights under Sharia law – including the right to work and study – the Taliban systematically excluded women and girls from public life. The Taliban have imposed a multitude of restrictions on women. They are excluded from many public jobs, controlled by how they dress, and forbidden to travel alone outside their city. Thus, violations of the human rights of women and girls have steadily worsened. (1)

The Taliban authorities have ordered national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to stop working with women after “serious complaints” that they were not following an appropriate dress code.

The announcement comes just four days after the Taliban government decided to ban Afghan women from attending public and private universities in the country indefinitely. The Minister of Higher Education, Neda Mohammad Nadeem, explained in a television interview that the decision was taken because “female students who went to university (…) did not follow the instructions on the hijab“. (2) “The hijab is compulsory in Islam,” he claimed, referring to the obligation for women in Afghanistan to cover their faces and bodies completely.

Already banned from secondary education, Afghan girls and women are no longer allowed to go to university either, according to a decision by the Taliban fundamentalists. Despite their promises to be more flexible, the Taliban have reverted to the ultra-rigorist interpretation of Islam that marked their first period in power (1996-2001). Since their return to power in August 2021, liberticidal measures have multiplied, particularly against women, who have been progressively excluded from public life and from secondary schools.

Female Nangarhar University students protest against the Taliban decree on closing women's universities throughout Afghanistan on December 21. Photo Credit: RFE/RL
Female Nangarhar University students protest against the Taliban decree on closing women’s universities throughout Afghanistan on December 21. Photo Credit: RFE/RL

Implemented on Wednesday, December 21, 2022, the Taliban government’s decision to close universities to women was taken shortly after thousands of female students took the entrance exam two months before. Weapons and closed doors were what Afghan women found on Wednesday morning as they flocked to the country’s universities. Guards barred their entry after the Taliban regime announced Tuesday that women would no longer have access to higher education. Like their younger sisters in March 2022, the sobbing students were forced to turn back in Kabul and other major cities.

Several foreign governments, including the US, had said that a change in policy on women’s education was needed before they would consider officially recognizing the Taliban-led administration and releasing humanitarian and financial aid.

After the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021, universities had been forced to implement new rules, including separating girls and boys during school hours. Girls were allowed to attend school and women could seek employment, although the country remained socially conservative. But for the past several months, liberticidal measures have multiplied, particularly against women, who have been gradually excluded from public life.

In an unexpected about-face on March 23, 2022, the Taliban had closed the secondary schools only hours after their long-announced reopening. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, himself intervened in the decision, according to a senior Taliban official. Several leaders of the fundamentalist movement had said that there were not enough teachers or money, but also that the schools would reopen once an Islamic curriculum had been developed. Young girls were allowed to attend classes, but only if they were taught by women or older men.

Already denied the right to study, women, who must wear the burqa or a hijab in public, are now banned from most public jobs or paid a pittance to stay at home. They are also not allowed to travel without a male relative. Worse, in November 2022, the Taliban also banned them from entering parks, gardens, sports halls and public baths.

UNDP analysis forecasts that restricting women from working can result in an economic loss of up to $1 billion – or up to five percent of the country’s GDP: (3)

‘’Already the poorest country in Asia, Afghanistan’s economic base has long been too small to support its population of 40 million. Annual per capita income had declined from US$650 in 2012 to US$500 in 2020, and is expected to drop precipitously to US$350 next year. “This new socio-economic assessment on Afghanistan estimates that restricting women from working could result in an immediate economic loss of up to US$1 billion – or up to five percent of the country’s GDP,” said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner. “Not only is this a loss the country can ill afford but we call on the de facto authorities to uphold the rights of women and girls, including the right to learn and to work.”

Failing to invest in half of the country’s human capital – in girls’ education – will have dire socio-economic consequences for years to come.’’

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Mehr News Agency
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Mehr News Agency

Women’s demonstrations against these measures, which rarely gather more than about 40 people, have become risky, with the Taliban not hesitating to open fire. Many protesters have been arrested and journalists are increasingly prevented from covering these gatherings.

Afghanistan’s supreme leader takes it a step further, ordering that Afghan women should wear the burqa in public. “Women who are neither too young nor too old should veil their faces when facing a man who is not a member of their family” to avoid provocation, the ruling decree adds. Moreover, if they do not have any important work to do outside, it is “better for them to stay at home“, the regime continues. 

More broadly, bans abound. In particular, non-religious music, depictions of human faces in advertisements, and TV broadcasts of films or series showing unveiled women are banned. At the same time, the fundamentalists ask men to wear traditional clothing and to grow a beard. In December 2022, in Afghanistan, a man was publicly executed and several dozen people were flogged by the Taliban. Several examples illustrate the return to an ultra-rigorist application of Islam, despite the promises made on their return to power in the summer of 2021.

It’s like déjà vu. More than a year after their return to power, the Taliban have unravelled, one by one, the measures introduced over two decades by successive governments. And so they have re-established an Islamic emirate, where sharia law is now part of the daily life of the inhabitants.

The Taliban, despite their initial promise of a more flexible regime than when they came to power between 1996 and 2001, impose drastic restrictions on women. On  March 23, 2022, they closed high schools and colleges to girls, just a few hours after their long-announced reopening.  Thus, Afghanistan becomes de facto the only country in the world where secondary school is forbidden to girls.

On this particular point UN Women writes: (4)

‘’Restrictions on women’s movement and bodies continue to escalate. In May, the Taliban decreed that women must cover their faces in public and instructed them to remain in their homes except in cases of necessity. Women are banned from travelling long distances without a male chaperone, and unchaperoned women are increasingly being denied access to essential services.

Stripped of their rights, under constant threat of violence, Afghan women and girls are relentlessly carrying on with their lives. For some, that means forming new civil society groups to address community needs; for others, it means re-opening their businesses and going back to work. For all, it is an act of unseen, unheard bravery.’’

The Taliban’s about-face on girls’ education in Afghanistan has provoked a wave of sadness and condemnation. Six Western countries – including the United States – and the European Union called on the Taliban on Thursday, March 14, 2022, to urgently reverse its decision to ban girls from secondary schools in a joint statement. France, Italy, Norway, the United States, Canada, and Britain, as well as the EU High Representative, warned that the decision would have consequences far beyond its harm to Afghan girls and could undermine Afghanistan’s ambition to become a respected member of the community of nations.

The return of the burqa

More broadly, bans abound. In particular, non-religious music, depictions of human faces in advertisements, and TV broadcasts of films or series showing unveiled women are banned. At the same time, fundamentalists ask men to wear traditional clothing and to grow a beard.

Women in burqa with their children in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Arnesen, Wikimedia Commons
Women in burqa with their children in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Arnesen, Wikimedia Commons

Under their first regime from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned television, cinema, and all other forms of entertainment. Being in possession of a VCR was punishable by public flogging.

As part of new religious guidelines released in November 2021, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has asked television stations to stop airing series featuring women. In a document for the attention of the media, the ministry indicates that televisions must avoid showing soap operas and rose water series in which women have played.

A new Taliban rule requires female television journalists in Afghanistan to only appear in front of cameras with their faces covered. Thus, according to ZDF, (5) the Afghan channel Tolonews would be forced to transfer or dismiss all female journalists who, as was the custom until now, appear only with a headscarf. “We then had to cover our mouths and noses,” said presenter Sonja Niasi. In solidarity with female presenters, male reporters and Tolonews employees also wore face masks in offices.

The street is not the only place where the regime wants to have a say: TikTok and the video game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) are also banned on April 2022, accused of leading youth astray.

Another list of bans, this time targeting gyms and public baths, now are forbidden to women. According to the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, hammams (public baths) where men and women are traditionally separated, are also concerned. The Taliban have also ordered park and garden officials to close their gates to women. Until now, different hours and days had been set aside so that the two sexes would not cross paths.

The ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan is now banning women in the country from playing sports. According to the regime officials, this is contrary to religious practice. Those who defy the ban will be severely punished. And woe betides the brave women who defy the ban: the regime promises them reprisals. Since the Taliban took power in Kabul, Afghan sportswomen have gone into hiding if they have not managed to flee the country.

Ms. Sima Bahous, UN Under-Secretary-General, and UN Women Executive Director condemns the onslaught of the Taliban on Afghan human rights in the following unequivocal terms: (6)

‘’In the year that has passed since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, we have seen daily and continuous deterioration in the situation of Afghan women and girls. This has spanned every aspect of their human rights, from living standards to social and political status. It has been a year of increasing disrespect for their right to live free and equal lives, denying them opportunity to livelihoods, access to health care and education, and escape from situations of violence.

The Taliban’s meticulously constructed policies of inequality set Afghanistan apart. It is the only country in the world where girls are banned from going to high school. There are no women in the Taliban’s cabinet, no Ministry of Women’s Affairs, thereby effectively removing women’s right to political participation. Women are, for the most part, also restricted from working outside the home, and are required to cover their faces in public and to have a male chaperone when they travel. Furthermore, they continue to be subjected to multiple forms of gender-based violence.’’

Hundreds of new loudspeakers have been installed in the Afghan capital, Kabul, to encourage the faithful to pray. The Ministry of Vice Prevention and Virtue Promotion also explained that hundreds of empty stalls and other unused places have recently been converted into mosques so that everyone has the opportunity to pray together.

Taliban in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Fars News Agency
Taliban in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Fars News Agency

Islamic law returns to the country in December 2022. And with it, sanctions such as public executions, stoning, and flogging, or amputation of limbs for thieves. (7) On Wednesday, December 7, 2022, the Taliban executed a man accused of murder in front of several hundred people in Farah (west). The condemned man was shot three times by his victim’s father, in accordance with the law of retaliation. And on Thursday, December 27, 2022, people were whipped in front of the crowd. The reasons given were: sodomy, adultery, perjury, debauchery, running away from home, theft, and selling and possessing drugs.

According to Deutsche Welle, (8) corporal punishment, reminiscent of the punishments of the first Taliban regime (1996-2001), is beinpracticeded again in Afghanistan. A Taliban statement on December 7, 2022, announced the public execution of a man in Farah province, the first confirmed execution since the change of power. According to the statement, the execution was carried out in accordance with the Islamic principle of qisâs, reciprocity of crime and punishment. The executed man had killed a man and stolen his motorbike and phone five years ago. According to CBS, (9) which quotes Taliban statements, he was shot three times by his victim’s father. A voice message from the victim’s mother, expressing her satisfaction, was reportedly posted on social networks. The executed man reportedly confessed to the murder following the family’s accusations, which led to his arrest, the date of which has not been made public. According to Taliban statements, the decision to execute him was approved by three of the country’s highest courts, and by the Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Broken trust

The mass exodus of the Afghan population is far from new. After four decades of conflict, Afghanistan is one of the countries with the most refugees in the world. According to the UN, there are 2.7 million refugees, but this figure is underestimated, according to several experts. (10)

The panic caused by the Taliban’s lightning offensive on Kabul has amplified the phenomenon, accelerating the departure of the best-educated Afghans for foreign countries. A brain drain that quickly worried the Taliban, many of whom come from rural areas and have no qualifications to govern.

Despite calls from the Taliban for educated Afghans to help rebuild the country, the best-educated segment of the population, which fled en masse after the fall of Kabul, has no intention of returning as long as the Islamist movement is in power. 

One of the movement’s spokesmen, Zabihullah Mujahid, called on Westerners to evacuate only foreigners and not “Afghan experts“. To convince the population to stay, the Taliban had promised a general amnesty, assuring that “no one would be threatened in Afghanistan“.

But a year later, trust has been broken. The Taliban have not honored any of their promises. In particular, the Taliban had sworn to the international community to guarantee schooling for young girls, but the Islamist movement reneged on its decision on the day the schools reopened in March 2022, causing scenes of distress among young Afghan women. 

Justice threatened

According to a joint statement by special rapporteurs from the United Nations (UN), the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are disappearing in Afghanistan, with catastrophic consequences in terms of human rights. Lawyers, judges, and other actors in the justice system are threatened in their security. The judicial system no longer enjoys any independence. 

Indeed, these UN experts pointed out in a statement made public on January 24, 2023, that legal professionals in Afghanistan face extreme risks, and need urgent international support: (11)

‘’We are gravely concerned about the dire situation faced by lawyers in Afghanistan and take this occasion to stress our broad concerns about the human rights abuses resulting from the dismantling of the independent legal system, and its replacement with a de facto system that flagrantly violates international standards. Since Taliban de facto authorities assumed control of Afghanistan in August 2021, lawyers and other legal professionals have faced incredible obstacles but have nonetheless persisted in their efforts to meet the legal needs of Afghan people. Legal professionals—especially women—face immense hardship and significant risks for attempting to play this key role, and the international community should support them and enable their critical work.’’

A Taliban patrol in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Fars News Agency
A Taliban patrol in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: Fars News Agency

The special rapporteurs have also alerted the international community to the exclusion of women from legal bodies: more than 250 female judges and hundreds of lawyers and prosecutors have already been removed from their posts by the Taliban. 

Still, according to the special rapporteurs, many women judges live in hiding or have left the country. 

Indeed, there is a systematic exclusion of women from the legal system according to these rapporteurs: (12)

‘’In an act of brazen discrimination, the Taliban have attempted to effectively ban all women—including women judges, prosecutors, and lawyers—from participating in the legal system. Among those removed were more than 250 women judges—over 10% of the bench before the Taliban takeover—as well as many hundreds of women lawyers and prosecutors. Due to threats to their security, many women judges have fled the country or gone into hiding. Women lawyers have been unable to seek renewal of their licenses, a requirement imposed by the Taliban, and therefore cannot practice law within the de facto system.’’

More than a dozen male prosecutors are also believed to have been killed across the country, and many more live in hiding like their female counterparts. Prosecutors are often targeted or sidelined for investigating or prosecuting Taliban under the previous regime.

Since taking power in 2021, the Taliban have appointed male members of the Taliban to fill new and returning judicial posts. These men often have a basic religious education. They are advised by Muslim legal experts, called muftis, who are empowered to rule on religious matters. In addition, laws and rules concerning judicial procedure have been suspended and women can only appear in court when they are parties to a dispute. According to the UN Special Rapporteurs, alleged offenders are often detained, convicted and punished on the same day by the police and other security agencies, denying any semblance of due process or judicial review.

According to the academic Adam Backzo, (13) the constitution of a legal system, operating in parallel wit or replacing that of the former authorities, was an important element in the Taliban’s struggle for power. The Taliban courts have thus built up their recognition by part of the Afghan population, notably by providing numerous decisions on land disputes.

He argues forcefully: (14)

‘’The success of the Taliban court system resulted from the consequences of Western intervention in the legal realm in the context of radical legal uncertainty for Afghans. Contrary to the common understanding of civil wars as situations of lawlessness, conflicts like Afghanistan are characterized by intense competition between legal systems for official status. The proliferation of competing authorities results in conflicting norms and verdicts, which profoundly destabilize social structures and aggravate disputes around certain issues, particularly property relations and ethnic, religious, class, gender, and age hierarchies. Law, which always is an essential realm in the structuring of the State and society, therefore plays an even more decisive role as it becomes a key stake in the civil war.’’

Acute malnutrition and growing illicit economy

According to the UN Food Programme (WFP),  at least 3.9 million Afghan children are acutely malnourished while 19.7 million people, nearly half of the Afghan population, are acutely hungry. 4.7 million children, pregnant women, and lactating mothers are at risk of acute malnutrition this year and all 34 provinces of the country are facing crisis or emergency levels of acute food insecurity. 

WFP is working to reassess the country’s food security indicators, including the Integrated Food Security Classification (IPC) framework, which classifies the severitý of acute food insecurity into five phases. According to the latest WFP report issued in May 2022, 6 million people were in IPC phase 4 (emergency) and 13 million in IPC phase 3 (crisis). Nine out of ten households are struggling to meet their food needs, according to the latest WFP food security update (July 2022). 

The share of household food expenditure has continued to increase, reaching over 90% in July 2022 (up from 80% in January). WFP is scaling up its winter response efforts and aims to provide assistance to 15 million people per month, which is why the organization says it needs US$1.14 billion to sustain its operations until March 2023.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), since the Taliban took over, the country’s economy has lost $5 billion, an amount that took a decade to build up. About 700,000 jobs have disappeared. The UNDP notes the impact of the growing illicit economy, severe restrictions on women, the freezing of foreign assets, international sanctions, inflation, and the emigration of skilled labor. 

The restructuring of the civil service, with the disappearance of some posts, has impacted the incomes of many households. Twenty million people are reportedly at high or critical levels of food insecurity, particularly children under five and people in the southern regions. Despite this serious situation, the report notes that customs revenues have been maintained and the trade deficit reduced.

Human rights flagrant infringements

In July, the UN published its first report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power.  It documented 237 killings that were described as executions. 160 of these killings were of former members of the armed forces or the state apparatus of the previous government, while the remaining 77 were of alleged or real members of the Afghan branch of the Islamic State or of new anti-Taliban armed groups. 

A group of women in Afghanistan wearing burkas. Photo Credit: Nitin Madhav (USAID), Wikimedia Commons
A group of women in Afghanistan wearing burqas. Photo Credit: Nitin Madhav (USAID), Wikimedia Commons

In addition, there were several hundred cases of “arbitrary arrest” or detention without contact with the outside world, 185 cases of torture and ill-treatment – including journalists and human rights defenders, 118 cases of excessive violence by Taliban police, and 217 cases of “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment“, mostly for offenses against Taliban morality. The UN says the cases cited are “allegations” that it considers credible based on its sources. 

In particular, the General Security Directorate (the Taliban’s secret service) and the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, described as the “moral police”, are held responsible for many cases of abuse. The UN notes that there is a “lack of clarity” regarding the existing legal framework and that the Taliban leave it “apparently deliberately vague“. The UN also notes that the human rights situation is “exacerbated by the unprecedented economic, financial and humanitarian crisis affecting the entire country“.

Final word: Absurd Middle-Age governance

the Taliban are firmly seated and rule more than they govern. They have thus dashed hopes – some say illusions – that once in power they would treat the population with more tolerance and tolerate at least some freedoms. Before that, the Taliban had already begun to severely restrict, if not suppress, civil liberties, many human rights, and in particular women’s rights. 

The human rights situation is complicated by a humanitarian and economic crisis. The modern civil society structures that have developed since 2011, and whose ranks could give rise to an opposition, have largely collapsed by August 2021.

Afghanistan remains a society marked by numerous conflicts of a political, ethnic, and, increasingly, economic nature. After 40 years of war, Afghan society is extremely fragmented and marked by deep mistrust. This prevents collective action. Even under the previous government, no opposition movement managed to remain effective in the long term.

Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, the rights of women and girls to education, work, and freedom of movement have been increasingly restricted. Their draconian policies deny millions of women and girls their right to lead free, and fulfilling lives.

Research by Amnesty International has revealed that child, early and forced marriages are on the rise in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban.  The economic and humanitarian crisis, lack of educational and vocational opportunities for women and girls, pressure from families to marry Taliban members, and pressure from Taliban members on women and girls to marry them are the main factors behind the increase.

Amnesty International writes: (18)

‘’In less than a year, the Taliban have decimated the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. Soon after they took control of the country’s government, the Taliban said they were committed to upholding the rights of women and girls. Yet they have violated women’s and girls’ rights to education, work and free movement; demolished the system of protection and support for women and girls fleeing domestic violence; arbitrarily detained women and girls for infractions of the Taliban’s discriminatory rules; and contributed to a surge in the rates of child, early and forced marriage in Afghanistan. Women who peacefully protested against these restrictions and policies have been harassed, threatened, arrested, forcibly disappeared, detained and tortured.’’

In Afghanistan, the Taliban use Islam as an excuse to enforce age-old tribal laws where brute force is the only currency in a male-dominated society. Changing this middle-aged governance model is equivalent to obliterating the Taliban system once and for all.

End notes:

  1.  UN Women. ‘’In focus: Women in Afghanistan one year after the Taliban takeover’’, August 15, 2022.
  2.  Noori, Hikmat. ‘’Taliban ban Afghan women from university education’’, The Guardian, December 20, 2022.
  3.  UNDP. ‘’Restrictions on women’s employment can reduce Afghanistan’s GDP by an additional 5 percent, UNDP report finds’’, December 1, 2021.
  4.  UN Women. ‘’In focus: Women in Afghanistan one year after the Taliban takeover’’, op. cit.
  5.  ZDF. ‘’Afghanistan. TV-Journalistinnen müssen Gesicht verhüllen’’, May 22, 2022.
  6.  Bahou, Simas. ‘’Statement: ‘Meticulously constructed policies of inequality’ – Afghanistan one year on’’, UN Women, August 15, 2022.
  7.  AFP/The Guardian. ‘’Afghan supreme leader orders full implementation of sharia law’’, November 14, 2022.
  8.  Sirat, Hussain. ‘’Afghanistan: Taliban return to violent ways’’, Deutsche Welle, December 7, 2022.
  9.  CBS/AP. ‘’Taliban militants carry out first public execution since the group reclaimed Afghanistan’’, December 7, 2022.
  10.  Migration Data Portal. ‘’Afghan Refugees and Undocumented Afghans’’, March 2022.,Pakistan%20(UNHCR%2C%202022a).
  11.  United Nations Human Rights Special Procedures. Media Statement: ‘’UN experts: legal professionals in Afghanistan face extreme risks, need urgent international support’’, January 24, 2023.
  12. Ibid.
  13.  Backzo, Adam. ‘’How the Taliban Justice System Contributed to their Victory in Afghanistan’’, Items, October 26, 2021.
  14. Ibid.
  15.  UNDP. ‘’Ten years of Afghan economic growth, reversed in just 12 months: UNDP’’, October 5, 2022.
  16.   UNAMA Human Rights Service. Human Rights in Afghanistan 15 August 2021 – 15 June 2022. New York: UN, July 2022.
  17.  Amnesty International. Death in Slow Motion Women and Girls Under Taliban Rule. London: Amnesty International, 2022.
  18.  Ibid.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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