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In Iraq, Pope spreads message of peace, religious tolerance and humanity’s resilience

After arriving in Iraq on Friday, Pope Francis travelled over the weekend to Mosul and holy sites within the country’s Christian heartland. On Sunday, according to media reports, the pontiff called for peace and prayed among ruined churches for the victims of the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which left thousands of civilians dead.

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth of the United Arab Emirates, welcomed the historic papal visit to Al Tahera Church, one of the sites of the UNESCO-led Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative.

Iconic symbol at the crossroads of cultures

Al-Tahera, built in 1859 and opened in 1862, is an iconic symbol woven into the history of Mosul. The Church is in the heart of the old city, formerly defined by the Ottoman city walls on the west bank of the Tigris River, opposite ancient Nineveh. Its multiple altars, dining room and two sacristy rooms set it aside from other churches of the same period.

This past December, when the restoration project got under way in earnest, UNESCO Representative to Iraq, Paolo Fontani, said that “the rehabilitation of this church is important not only because of its value as cultural heritage, but also as a testimony to the diversity of the city, a proud crossroads of cultures and a peaceful haven for different religious communities over the centuries.”

At that time, Minister Al Kaabi added that through the UAE’s restorative efforts with UNESCO, the aim was not only to rebuild various places of worship, but “also to empower Moslawi youth by creating job opportunities, providing vocational and technical training, and enhancing the capabilities of craftsmen in the field of preservation of cultural heritage.”

Harmony and cohesion between religions

In the joint statement issued on Saturday, Minister Al Kaabi and Ms. Azouley described the Pope’s visit to Al-Tahera Church as sending a clear message to the world that harmony and cohesion between the followers of all religions is the only way for the advancement and progress of humanity, and the most effective means by which to address the increasing challenges facing the world.

The Minister and Director-General stressed the importance of the Pope’s visit to the site of the project in spreading the message of peace and fraternity and highlighted the strength and resilience of humanity in countering the divisive message spread by the group responsible for destroying the Al Nouri Mosque, the Al Saa’a and Al Tahera Churches.

“The Pope’s visit to the project site was a source of inspiration to those engaged in the rehabilitation efforts and provides strong impetus to efforts aimed at establishing peace and harmony in Iraq, the region and the world,” they stated.

Pope’s visit to Iraq, ‘a symbol of hope’: UN agencies

The Pope’s arrival in the Christian northern heartland, will come as a “message of peace and unity supported on a pillar of diversity”, UNESCO said. 

“This message is at the core of our mandate, where inclusion and diversity are critical to understanding, mutual respect, and ultimately a more peaceful and just world”, it added. 

Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday, and is expected to travel to Mosul on Sunday, where, according to media reports, he will pray for the victims of the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which left thousands of civilians dead. 

UNITAD welcomes ‘unifying message’

Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) Karim Khan, welcomed the historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq, and the message it carries to all communities, “who have severely suffered from the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL”.

“The Pope’s visit to Iraq, his meetings with Iraqi religious leaders and the religious sites he is visiting carry a unifying message of peace and coexistence among all communities in Iraq, especially those who have suffered at the hands of ISIL from all faiths, including the Christian community,” said the Special Adviser, in a news release on Friday.

He added that “the fact that the Christians of Iraq will receive communion from the Holy Father in Iraq is a huge and momentous event. In particular, His Holiness’ visits to Mosul and Qaraqosh, and his prayer of sufferage for the victims of war at the Church square of Hosh al-Bieaa; one place that was ravaged by ISIL crimes, will obviously be a deeply personal moment for many of the Christian flock in Iraq. It will also underline that Iraq is enriched by people of all faiths – and from all ethnic groups – and that every life matters.”

The Special Adviser added that the pursuit of accountability in fair trials is crucial to achieving the healing and reconciliation that the Pope will call for. 

UNESCO also noted that the visit to Mosul carries particular significance, as the city – one of the oldest in the world, and a cultural and religious centre for centuries – suffered extensive damage during the occupation by ISIL extremists between 2014-2017. 

During those three years, various battles took place, leaving Mosul in ruins, its heritage sites reduced to rubble, religious monuments and cultural antiquities damaged, and thousands of Moslawis – as the city’s inhabitants are known – displaced, leaving them scarred and with immense humanitarian needs. 

Following the city’s liberation, UNESCO together with partners, including the Iraqi Government, has been working to preserve and promote its rich and diverse cultural and religious heritage, as well as prevent violent extremism through education. 

“It is through education and culture that Iraqis, men and women alike, will be able to regain control of their destiny and become actors in the renewal of their country”, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, said in a message. 

‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ 

UNESCO’s flagship initiative “Revive the Spirit of Mosul”, which was launched in February 2018, sums up the ambition and “full spectrum” of its action, the agency highlighted. 

It focuses not only on reconstructing the city’s iconic heritage sites, but also empowering Moslawis as agents of change involved in rebuilding their city through culture and education.

As a first major step towards the recovery of Mosul, UNESCO is rehabilitating the Al Nouri Mosque and its famous leaning minaret, Al-Tahera and Al-Saa’a churches. The agency has also started working on the rehabilitation of Al-Aghawat Mosque, as well as on the rehabilitation of the old houses of the city. 

Beyond the rehabilitation of architectural landmarks, the initiative includes on the-job training for young professionals, strengthening the capacities of craftspeople, job-creation opportunities and technical and vocational education. 

UNICEF/Jennifer Sparks
Girls at a primary school in west Mosul, Iraq.

‘Voices of the children of Old Mosul’ 

UNESCO is also helping rebuild schools and empowering teachers to prevent spread of violent extremism. 

So far, 26 trainers, 743 primary school teachers and managers, and 307 parents have been trained in preventing violent extremism through education.  

The programme aims to equip learners, of all ages, and notably young women and men, with the knowledge, values, attitudes and behaviours, which foster responsible global citizenship, critical thinking, empathy and the ability to take action against violent extremism. 

Children and young people at a psychosocial support programme in Mosul, Iraq.

‘Bringing back cultural life’ 

Reviving the Spirit of Mosul is also about bringing back cultural life in Mosul, UNESCO said, adding that with its partner the agency is working on reviving music in the city.  

Part of a project entitled “Listening to Iraq”, the programme seeks to empower vulnerable populations by celebrating cultural diversity and strengthening social cohesion.  

A Moslawi musician, who saw the beauty of music robbed from his city, summed up the importance: 

“By bringing back music to Mosul”, Ehsan Akram Al Habib, a 39-year-old violinist, said, “we are trying to bring back life to our city.” 

Equality in engineering crucial to achieving sustainable development: UN-backed report

The study highlights currently insufficient engineering capacities to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the internationally agreed blueprint for a peaceful and prosperous planet, as well as the lack of diversity in the field. 

“Engineering is one of the keys to the sustainable development of our societies, and to activate its full potential, the world needs more engineers and more equality”, said Audrey Azoulay, the UNESCO Director-General. 

Pandemic accelerates action 

The report, entitled Engineering for Sustainable Development: Delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, was prepared in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Engineering; the International Centre for Engineering Education (ICEE), based at Tsinghua University in Beijing; the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO); and other international engineering organizations. 

It was released ahead of World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development, observed this Thursday, 4 March. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the call for urgent action to deliver on the SDGs, while affirming the relevance of engineering to sustainable development”, the authors said. 

Women ‘historically underrepresented’ 

The report underscores how equal opportunity for all is crucial to ensuring inclusivity and gender balance in a profession that has played an essential role in development and human well-being.  

Engineering is critical to mitigating the impact of climate change and advancing the SDGs, especially in Africa and the small island developing States, UNESCO said.  

Despite the profession’s importance, the UN agency noted that women have been “historically underrepresented” in engineering, making up only 10 to 20 per cent of workers.   

Barriers hampering women include persistent gender stereotypes in the field and inadequate policies or educational environments that do not meet their needs and aspirations. 

Transforming and innovating 

The report showcases engineering innovations and actions from across the world that are contributing to meeting the SDGs. The 17 goals aim to end poverty, reduce inequality and spur economic growth, while also protecting the natural environment. 

Examples mentioned include the increase in digital technology use during the pandemic, such as telemedicine for virtual treatment, while Artificial Intelligence, or “AI”, is helping to make water systems more adaptive and efficient. 

The authors said “engineering itself needs to transform to become more innovative, inclusive, cooperative and responsible”, underlining the need for “a new paradigm” that bridges disciplines in order to address complex issues such as climate change, urbanization and preserving the health of oceans and forests. 

Over 168 million children miss nearly a year of schooling, UNICEF says

“As we approach the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are again reminded of the catastrophic education emergency worldwide lockdowns have created”, Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, said in a news release, announcing the agency’s findings. 

“With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalized paying the heaviest price”, she added. 

According to UNICEF, nine of the 14 countries, where schools remained mostly closed between March 2020 to February 2021, are in the Latin American and Caribbean region, affecting nearly 100 million students. Of these countries, Panama kept schools closed for the most days, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh, and Bolivia. 

In addition, around 214 million children – one in seven pupils globally – missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning, while over 888 million continue to face disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures, according to UN data. 

Prioritize schools in reopening plans 

School closures have devastating consequences for children’s learning and wellbeing. The most vulnerable children and those unable to access remote learning are hit even harder, as they are at an increased risk of never returning to the classroom, sometimes forced into child labour and even child marriage, according to UNICEF. 

Schoolchildren globally also rely on their schools as a place to interact with peers, seek support, access health and immunization services and a nutritious meal. The longer schools remain closed, the longer children are cut off from these critical elements of childhood, the agency added. 

Executive Director Fore called on all nations to keep schools open, or prioritize them in reopening plans where they are closed. 

“We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children. No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritize them in reopening plans”, she highlighted. 

UNICEF also urged governments to focus on the unique needs of every student, with comprehensive services covering remedial learning, health and nutrition, and mental health and protection measures in schools to nurture children and adolescents’ development and wellbeing. 

‘Pandemic Classroom’

Also on Wednesday, UNICEF unveiled ‘Pandemic Classroom’, a model classroom made up of 168 empty desks, each desk representing one million of the children living in countries where schools have been almost entirely closed, as a “solemn reminder of the classrooms in every corner of the world that remain empty”, said the agency. 

Behind each empty chair hangs an empty backpack – a placeholder for a child’s deferred potential. 

After walking through the installation, set up at UN Headquarters in New York, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the staggering number of children missing out on valuable education “a tragedy”. 

“We have millions of children out of school and that is a tragedy. A tragedy for them, a tragedy for their countries, a tragedy for the future of humankind”, he said. 


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Condemnation over new attack on Nigeria school, ‘more than 300’ girls missing 

The agency’s representative in the country, Peter Hawkins, urged the assailants to let the teenagers go immediately, after the latest in a recent spate of outrages perpetrated against youngsters, this time in Zamfara state. 

“We are angered and saddened by yet another brutal attack on schoolchildren in Nigeria,” Mr. Hawkins said. “This is a gross violation of children’s rights and a horrific experience for children to go through – one which could have long-lasting effects on their mental health and well-being.”  

Way of life 

Such incidents have become “a way of life” to many in Nigeria, Mr. Hawkins told UN News in an exclusive interview, recorded before Friday’s development. 

Bandits hoping to make quick cash by forcing the families and authorities to pay ransom money their hostages, often target institutions just out of reach of State control and usually in rural areas, he explained. 

It comes after dozens of boys and teachers were taken from a college housing borders, in central Nigeria’s Niger state last week; they have yet to be released. 

Night assault 

According to reports, Friday’s incident attack happened in the middle of the night at the Government Girls Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara state. 

“We utterly condemn the attack and call on those responsible to release the girls immediately and for the government to take steps to ensure their safe release and the safety of all other schoolchildren in Nigeria”, Mr. Hawkins said. 

“Children should feel safe at home and at school at all times – and parents should not need to worry for the safety of their children when they send them off to school in the morning.” 

After acknowledging the efforts of the Government of Nigeria to secure the release of kidnapped schoolchildren in Nigeria, the UNICEF official urged the authorities “to make schools safe”. 

Boko Haram threat 

In addition to these armed gangs operating in Nigeria’s northwest, north-central and northern states, Boko Haram extremists still control vast areas of the northeast. 

Nearly seven years ago, Boko Haram – whose name is usually translated as “western education is forbidden” – took 276 girls from their school in Chibok in northeast Nigeria. Many of them remain missing. 

Access to schooling is key 

Despite the dangers – and because of them – humanitarians believe that education should remain a priority for governments, who should also boost access to lessons for the most vulnerable. 

Highlighting how progress is being made against the extremists in the former Boko Haram stronghold of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, UNICEF’s Peter Hawkins happily described how “thousands of children, tens of thousands of children” have now returned to the classroom – something that not have been imagined during the extremists’ insurgency, which began in 2009. 

Miraculous change is possible 

“If you went to Maidiguri in 2015-2016, there was nothing happening, no schools”, he said. “If you go there now…there are traffic jams of KKs – the three-wheelers around the city transporting children…girls and boys. It’s a miraculous change that has taken place.”  

Friday’s school attack comes just over a week after a similar attack in Niger state on a school for boys. UNICEF is working with partners to confirm the exact number of kidnapped students, currently estimated to be more than 300. 

International Mother Language Day celebrates inclusion at school and in society

The annual commemoration honours linguistic diversity and multilingualism, which UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay called “this priceless heritage of humanity.”

The focus this year is on inclusion, both in the classroom and in society.

“This is essential, because when 40 per cent of the world’s inhabitants do not have access to education in the language they speak or understand best, it hinders their learning, as well as their access to heritage and cultural expressions,” Ms. Azoulay said in her message for the Day.

“This year, special attention is being paid to multilingual education from early childhood, so that for children, their mother tongue is always an asset,” she added.

The COVID-19 threat

International Mother Language Day is being celebrated as the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, which has widened inequalities in education. Ms. Azoulay said many of the 1.5 billion students worldwide unable to attend school at the peak of the crisis had no access to distance learning.  

The pandemic is also threatening cultural diversity, as festivals and other events have been cancelled, with the impacts affecting creators and the media.

Ms. Azoulay underscored her agency’s commitment to promoting multilingualism, including on the Internet. UNESCO is also the lead agency for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which begins next year.

Preserving a common heritage

She said the International Day, like the Decade, presents the challenge of ensuring the diversity of the world’s languages is preserved as a common heritage. 

“For when a language dies, a way of seeing, feeling and thinking the world disappears, and all of cultural diversity is irretrievably diminished,” she said.

“On this International Day, UNESCO therefore calls for the celebration of the world in all its diversity, and support for multilingualism in everyday life.”

‘Women and girls belong in science’ declares UN chief  

“Advancing gender equality in science and technology is essential for building a better future”, Secretary-General António Guterres stated, “We have seen this yet again in the fight against COVID-19”. 

Women, who represent 70 per cent of all healthcare workers, have been among those most affected by the pandemic and those leading the response to it. Yet, as women bear the brunt of school closures and working from home, gender inequalities have increased dramatically over the past year.  

Woman’s place is in the lab 

Citing the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) he said that women account for only one third of the world’s researchers and hold fewer senior positions than men at top universities, which has led to “a lower publication rate, less visibility, less recognition and, critically, less funding”. 

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning replicate existing biases.  

“Women and girls belong in science”, stressed the Secretary-General. 

Yet stereotypes have steered them away from science-related fields.  

Diversity fosters innovation 

The UN chief underscored the need to recognize that “greater diversity fosters greater innovation”.  

“Without more women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], the world will continue to be designed by and for men, and the potential of girls and women will remain untapped”, he spelled out. 

Their presence is also critical in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to close gender pay gaps and boost women’s earnings by $299 billion over the next ten years, according to Mr. Guterres. 

“STEM skills are also crucial in closing the global Internet user gap”, he said, urging everyone to “end gender discrimination, and ensure that all women and girls fulfill their potential and are an integral part in building a better world for all”. 

‘A place in science’ 

Meanwhile, despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28 per cent of engineering graduates and 40 per cent of graduates in computer science and informatics, according to UNESCO.  

It argues the need for women to be a part of the digital economy to “prevent Industry 4.0 from perpetuating traditional gender biases”.  

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay observed that “even today, in the 21st century, women and girls are being sidelined in science-related fields due to their gender”.  

As the impact of AI on societal priorities continues to grow, the underrepresentation of women’s contribution to research and development means that their needs and perspectives are likely to be overlooked in the design of products that impact our daily lives, such as smartphone applications.  

“Women need to know that they have a place in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and that they have a right to share in scientific progress”, said Ms. Azoulay.

© UNICEF/Omid Fazel
A girl in Afghanistan shows a robot she has built at an exhibition in Kabul.

‘Pathway’ to equality

Commemorating the day at a dedicated event, General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir informed that he is working with a newly established Gender Advisory Board to mainstream gender throughout all of the UN’s work, including the field of science. 

“We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to derail our plans for equality”, he said, adding that increasing access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, for women and girls has emerged as “a pathway to gender equality and as a key objective of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. 

Mr. Volkan highlighted the need to accelerate efforts and invest in training for girls to “learn and excel in science”. 

“From the laboratory to the boardroom, Twitter to television, we must amplify the voices of female scientists”, he stressed. 

STEM minorities  

Meanwhile, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation honoured five women researchers in the fields of astrophysics, mathematics, chemistry and informatics as part of the 23rd International Prize for Women in Science.  

In its newly published global study on gender equality in scientific research, To be smart, the digital revolution will need to be inclusive, UNESCO shows that although the number of women in scientific research has risen to one in three, they remain a minority in mathematics, computer science, engineering and artificial intelligence. 

“It is not enough to attract women to a scientific or technological discipline”, said Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant UNESCO Director-General for Natural Sciences.  

“We must also know how to retain them, ensuring that their careers are not strewn with obstacles and that their achievements are recognized and supported by the international scientific community”. 

UN NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Exceptional teacher inspires students and fights scourge of child marriage

Mr. Disale, one of 10 finalists for the prestigious accolade, was recognized for his “exceptional” efforts at promoting girls’ schooling and his innovations to engage students and spark their interests in the classroom. 

And that is not all, the exceptional educator also played an instrumental role in preventing a young female student from being married off to a man over twice her age. 

Vaibhav Gadekar | Girls learning through technology.

In an exclusive interview with UN News, Mr. Disale recalls a knock at the door as someone came to his house to tell him about the wedding. It was a Sunday. 

“I was shocked. How can a 13-year-old girl get married. I rushed to her home”, he said. 

When he arrived, he saw the wedding ceremony was about to take place. 

“I talked to her parents, I told them it is completely illegal, they cannot do this … but the girl’s father told me ‘not to interfere’ in their family matters”, Mr. Disale recounted. 

When his pleas went unheard, he called the police, who came and stopped the wedding. 

After the police left, Mr. Disale had to face the wrath of the community: “They were very angry at me”. 

Though it took time, he was able to convince the community that under-aged girls – children – should not be married off.

He was also able to make them understand the importance of education for girls, for their physical and mental development and for their economic sufficiency. 

Listen more in our exclusive interview: 

The Global Teacher Prize is a $1 million award presented annually to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession. This year’s 10 finalists were selected from over 12,000 applications and nominations from over 140 countries. 

World Radio Day marks evolution, innovation and connection of ‘vector of freedom’  

This year’s theme “New World, New Radio” is an ode to the resilience of radio and a tribute to its capacity to adapt to societal transformations and listeners’ needs. 

In celebrating the tenth anniversary of the day, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) drew attention to the past year as highlighting the extent to which this medium “remains essential to our contemporary societies”.  

An evolving medium 

As the world changes, so too does radio – evolving as it records humanity’s history by following and adapting to societal developments.  

This has been extremely clear during the coronavirus crisis, where, among other things, the medium has made it possible to ensure the continuity of learning and fight against misinformation. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of its added value: with a penetration rate of over 75 per cent in developing countries, radio remains the most accessible medium”, the UNESCO chief said, citing that as a reason why it has been “a key tool” in responding to the crisis. 

“It has helped to save lives by making it possible to relay health instructions, make reliable information accessible and combat hate speech”, she added.   

UNESCO has produced royalty-free audio messages in 56 languages, offering them to radio stations around the globe to counter false rumours. 

Radio’s ‘second youth’ 

To remain the go-to medium of mobility, accessible everywhere and to everyone, the medium has had to adapt to new technologies. 

While radio of yesteryear was a simple transistor on our kitchen tables, nowadays, through smartphones, it follows us wherever we go.  

And radio is no longer just a sound medium. Technological progress and digitization have made it possible for it to adapt to our behaviors and lifestyles. 

Today it is listened to on television, and TV is heard on the radio while podcasts can be downloaded for listeners to hear whenever they like. 

“Radio thus remains an essential medium that proves its resilience on a daily basis, along with its capacity for innovation” said Ms. Azoulay. 

Noting that “in this century of images…radio mirrors the thoughts of a world that must be heard to be understood”, she pointed out that “with the creation of Internet radio, podcasts, smartphones and new technologies, it is truly blossoming in its second youth”. 

Making a connection 

Radio also services society, sharing vital information during natural disasters, socio-economic crises, epidemics and other important events. 

Public service announcements, alerts and broadcasts are but a few examples of how the medium provides services and solutions to best meet listeners’ needs. 

It connects people, forging or maintaining links – affirming its central role for today and tomorrow. 

“More than ever, we need this universal humanist medium”, said the UNESCO chief.  

Without it, she maintained that the right to information and freedom of expression and, with them, fundamental freedoms “would be weakened”, as would cultural diversity, “since community radio stations are the voices of the voiceless”. 

“On this World Day, UNESCO calls on everyone – audiences, radio broadcasters and audiovisual professionals – to celebrate radio and its values and to promote reliable information as a common good”, concluded Ms. Azoulay.    

© UNICEF/Salomon Marie Joseph Beguel
Through an innovative radio programme, UNICEF is helping an 11-year-old girl separated from her family in Cameroon to continue her studies.

FROM THE FIELD: Teaching Chad’s scientists of the future

A pilot study in the city of Bol in Chad, which has suffered the effects of cross-border terrorism over many years, has shown that the provision of simple science-focused materials like a compass or protractor (which measures angles) is making a  big difference to both teachers and pupils in one of the poorest parts of the Central African country.

Two young students in Bol, Chad show their work on a blackboard at school. UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

Ten teachers and 775 students, half of whom are girls, have received the supplies so far and it’s hoped eventually more than 12,000 will benefit.

Ahead of International Day of Women and Girls in Science marked annually on 11 February read more here about Chad’s future scientists.

Read more stories here from Education Cannot Wait.

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