Still Life with Bones

Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains

New York Times Book Review Editors Choice • An anthropologist working with forensic teams and victims’ families to investigate crimes against humanity in Latin America explores what science can tell us about the lives of the dead in this haunting account of grief, the power of ritual, and a quest for justice.

“Absorbing . . . multifaceted and elegiac . . . Still Life with Bones captures the ethos that drives the search—often tireless and against the odds—for truth.”—The New York Times

WINNER OF THE JUAN E. MÉNDEZ BOOK AWARD • A NEW YORKER AND BOOKPAGE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR


“Exhumation can divide brothers and restore fathers, open old wounds and open the possibility of regeneration—of building something new with the ‘pile of broken mirrors’ that is memory, loss, and mourning.”

Throughout Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed conflict, state forces killed more than two hundred thousand people. Argentina’s military dictatorship disappeared up to thirty thousand people. In the wake of genocidal violence, families of the missing searched for the truth. Young scientists joined their fight against impunity. Gathering evidence in the face of intimidation and death threats, they pioneered the field of forensic exhumation for human rights. 

In Still Life with Bones, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty learns to see the dead body with a forensic eye. She examines bones for marks of torture and fatal wounds—hands bound by rope, machete cuts—and also for signs of identity: how life shapes us down to the bone. A weaver is recognized from the tiny bones of the toes, molded by kneeling before a loom; a girl is identified alongside her pet dog. In the tenderness of understanding these bones, forensics not only offers proof of mass atrocity but also tells the story of each life lost. 

Working with forensic teams at mass grave sites and in labs, Hagerty discovers how bones bear witness to crimes against humanity and how exhumation can bring families meaning after unimaginable loss. She also comes to see how cutting-edge science can act as ritual—a way of caring for the dead with symbolic force that can repair societies torn apart by violence.

Weaving together powerful stories about investigative breakthroughs, histories of violence and resistance, and her own forensic coming-of-age, Hagerty crafts a moving portrait of the living and the dead.
© Hélène Ressayres
Alexa Hagerty is an anthropologist researching science, technology, and human rights. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and is an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge. Her research has received honors and funding from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Ethnological Society, among other institutions. She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wired, Social Anthropology, and Palais de Tokyo. View titles by Alexa Hagerty
Chapter 1

A Lovely Grave for Learning


It is September, and I am standing on a hill in El Quiché, Guatemala, with a pickax in my hand. For the past month, I have been working alongside forensic anthropologists who are recovering the bodies of the victims of one of Latin America’s longest, bloodiest armed conflicts. We dig trenches, roughly eight feet long and six feet deep—­about the size of a coffin. It is backward grave digging, pulling bodies out of the ground, not putting them in. Plunging the pickax, I imagine hitting a body, and the idea makes me cringe and gives me a visceral reaction of horror. I break my swing and let the pickax land softly on the dirt when I think of this. Before coming here, I had read anthropologist Victoria Sanford’s Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala, an account of her fieldwork in the mid-­1990s documenting the aftermath of La Violencia, as the conflict is locally known. At Sanford’s first encounter with a mass grave, she repeated to herself: “Don’t faint. Don’t vomit.” I adopt this as my prayer, too. Let us find the bodies, but let me not hit anything—­anyone—­with a shovel.

Everything begins to look like a body. The white roots of plants and sticks look like bones. Rotted leaves look like fabric; our footprints dried in the mud look like the rubber soles of shoes. Underground, deep down, we find tunnels from moles, colonies of black-­winged insects, thick white grubs, and ants. Everything seems like potent proof. And they could be clues. Dead bodies attract these subterranean creatures. There are cycles of life associated with decay. Even after thirty years, when flesh has decomposed, there are still trace nutrients. Like schools of fish in a shipwreck, things take up residence in the armature of bones. As I dig, I think of the lines from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-­change

Into something rich and strange.

Thousands of men, women, and children are buried in Guatemalan earth, lives violently made into bones, hidden in this strange underground world.

As we dig, forensic team members examine the soil: reddish loam and friable clay. They are looking for evidence that the layers are revuelto, mixed. If the soil has been disturbed, it shows that the area has been previously dug up—­potentially a sign of buried bodies. Blended strata mark the earth like a scar. Shoveling is repetitive work, physically exhausting, but not boring. It is electrified by the promise of finding the bodies. But after hours, we still find nothing.

A few times a day, someone unearths pottery shards. We gather around to look at them. One day a farmer brings us a ceramic figure he found while tilling his maize field. The clay head is about the size of a quarter, and the face bears a serious, concerned expression. It looks like something you would see in a museum. It almost certainly should be in a museum. The farmer wants to sell it for 100 USD, but buying it would be illegal. A photographer visiting the site pays him 5 USD to take a picture of it. This haunting little face has been unearthed after being buried perhaps hundreds of years in the sorrowful dirt of Guatemala, where the bones of a decades-­old genocide are stacked on top of the bones of five hundred years of colonial conquest. Excavation reveals history as a material presence, the earth as a calendar. We cut through the matted sod of the present, digging through stratified years. Another day, we find part of a clay vessel, its graceful rim nearly intact. Esteban is one of several team members who are classically trained archaeologists and have worked at sites like Tikal and Cotzumalhuapa. He says it is prehispánico, dating it to before the Spanish invaded, greedy for gold, sugar, and slaves. Before what Maya accounts call the arrival of the “force of great suffering” and the beginning of “misery and affliction.” Esteban throws the fragment back into the pit, like catch-­and-­release fishing. It is illegal to take any of the shards. Anyway, they aren’t what we are here for.

•••

The mass graves we are searching for are the grim legacy of the armed conflict in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. I am training with one of the world’s top forensic teams, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, or the Fundación de Antro­pología Forense de Guatemala, known by its acronym, FAFG. I’m learning how to exhume and identify the dead. Every morning we make the forty-­minute drive from the cement-­block rooms we’re renting in a bigger town through the mountainous province of El Quiché. Villages dot the countryside with clusters of cement schools and houses and stores painted with Coca-­Cola signs. Most towns have two or three evangelical churches, eye-­catching because they are the only freshly painted buildings. Mostly we drive past milpa, steep hillsides planted with corn.

We pull over on a deeply rutted dirt road. Esteban hands us pickaxes and shovels from the back of the pickup truck. It has been raining, and the path through the woods is slick. We swing the tools into the muddy ground to anchor our steps, trudging through a tunnel of trees. After a ten-minute walk, the path opens into a field. It’s an ordinary field, a rolling meadow ringed by trees. The sky has cleared. With the sun shining, it looks like a good place for a picnic.

It takes a moment to notice the holes in the ground, dozens of short trenches. These are exploratory excavations, abandoned when they yielded no bodies. The holes are half filled with rainwater and trash now. So far, the team has found about twenty bodies in small graves of two or three people, but this is just the beginning. Members of the forensic team guess there are two hundred bodies here under the earth. Maybe more. Mass graves riddle Guatemala. Most are still waiting to be exhumed. Many will never be found.

In the cool morning, we work above the field on a ridge that drops into thick woods. From the excavation site, you can hear but not see a river running nearby. As the crow flies, we are not that far from the nearest town. Across the valley, you can just make out the cemetery with its brightly painted gravestones and its wall of nichos, where the dead rest aboveground in something like a mortuary apartment block. Sometimes strains of music from the local church float to us. It is easy to forget that we are so close to the village. It feels isolated.

In the 1980s, this was the site of Xolosinay, an army garrison long since abandoned. Soldiers detained residents of surrounding villages in the camp. The families of those who were taken here never saw them again. No one knows how many people were killed and buried here. One man managed to escape. The soldiers had ordered the prisoners to dig a trench, then lined them up in front of it and shot them one by one. During the executions, the lone survivor managed to dive into the underbrush. A soldier fired at him, hitting him in the arm, but he fled into the deep woods. He spent years on the run in the mountains.

In the three decades since soldiers held the man prisoner, the site has changed. The soldiers are gone. The tents and paths have disappeared. The trees have grown. But he remembers where he stood in front of the pit of bodies—­on the crest of the hill where we are digging.

•••

As part of the peace process begun in 1996, the United Nations–­sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification quantified the staggering toll of the violence in Guatemala. In a country of eight million people, there were 200,000 dead. An estimated 45,000 people had been disappeared. More than a million people suffered forced displacement. There were 626 massacres and 430 villages razed. The truth commission determined the Guatemalan state to be responsible for 93 percent of the documented abuses. More than 80 percent of the victims of the armed conflict were Maya. The commission declared that the state had committed genocide.

The numbers reported by the truth commission are shocking, but they do not capture the cruelty of La Violencia. People told me stories of babies beaten against walls, pregnant women eviscerated, men burned alive, girls raped in front of their families, boys decapitated, people hacked to death with machetes. These gruesome testimonials have been confirmed by truth commission investigations, chronicled by human rights groups, and documented by forensic evidence.
“Haunted and fascinating . . . lyrical . . . The stories of these excavators of the past are told compellingly in Still Life with Bones.”The New York Times Book Review

“Moving, profound and very readable . . . There’s a spiritual element as [Hagerty] speaks of learning to ‘read’ the bones and the ghosts that result.”—Financial Times

“In this meditative ethnography, a social anthropologist . . . delicately explores the art, the science, and the sacredness of exhumation in the aftermath of genocide. . . . Throughout the book, just as in forensics, ‘the ritual and the analytical buzz in electric proximity.’”The New Yorker

“Moving and beautiful, harrowing and horrifying . . . A single sentence can stop you in your tracks. . . . Still Life with Bones is stark and upsetting, but also deeply humane and shot through with a hard-won wisdom. You will see forensics in a new light.”New Scientist

“Chilling and vital. . . . sensitive and thought-provoking.”The Times

“Visceral . . . a timely reminder of the legacies of war and genocide . . . a lyrical and powerful meditation on the meaning of justice, grief and ritual.”The Conversation

“Powerful and harrowing . . . told with clarity, compassion and utmost respect for those cruelly killed and for those who grieve for them.”The Irish Times
 
“Haunting . . . [Still Life with Bones] will stay with you long after the final world.”The Sunday Post (UK)

“Philosophical, poetic, never mawkish, Hagerty’s book has the makings of a classic. . . . [Hagerty] is an exceptional writer, eloquently exploring both the practicalities and the symbolism of her work, sidestepping clunky metaphors while grave while finding startling new ones.”The Times Literary Supplement

“This book knocked me flat. . . . This kind of book is perfect for people who have morbid interests but want to use them for good. Books like this help readers gain new perspectives, learn important history, and connect to our shared human nature that finds death-related rituals important.”Book Riot

Still Life with Bones is at once horrifying and impossibly hopeful.”—Francisco Cantú, New York Times bestselling author of The Line Becomes a River

“Meticulous, luminous, utterly brilliant . . . The prose is as delicate and sharp as a rib cage, but the book’s beating heart is Hagerty’s wise and compassionate voice, a welcome guide through the atrocities she documents.”—Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body

“Hagerty, a Chekhovian angel of science and poetry, has written an intimate, moving, mesmerizing account. The world is what it is, its global sorrows ever mounting, but this treasure of a book somehow makes it more bearable.”—Francisco Goldman, author of Monkey Boy, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

“An electrifying read, full  of profound personal insight and intellectual generosity . . . Bones tell chilling stories about our past, but they preserve, too, the potency of alternative outcomes. Hagerty unlocks this possibility with wisdom and compassion.”—Cristina Rivera Garza, author of Liliana’s Invincible Summer

“Touching and achingly honest—a most amazing account of training as a forensic anthropologist . . . When Hagerty talks about ‘lives being violently made into bones,’ I defy you not to be moved.”—Sue Black, author of All That Remains

“Soulful but unsentimental. . . . A powerful meditation on life, death, and sorting out what can be saved of death in life.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.”BookPage (starred review)

About

New York Times Book Review Editors Choice • An anthropologist working with forensic teams and victims’ families to investigate crimes against humanity in Latin America explores what science can tell us about the lives of the dead in this haunting account of grief, the power of ritual, and a quest for justice.

“Absorbing . . . multifaceted and elegiac . . . Still Life with Bones captures the ethos that drives the search—often tireless and against the odds—for truth.”—The New York Times

WINNER OF THE JUAN E. MÉNDEZ BOOK AWARD • A NEW YORKER AND BOOKPAGE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR


“Exhumation can divide brothers and restore fathers, open old wounds and open the possibility of regeneration—of building something new with the ‘pile of broken mirrors’ that is memory, loss, and mourning.”

Throughout Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed conflict, state forces killed more than two hundred thousand people. Argentina’s military dictatorship disappeared up to thirty thousand people. In the wake of genocidal violence, families of the missing searched for the truth. Young scientists joined their fight against impunity. Gathering evidence in the face of intimidation and death threats, they pioneered the field of forensic exhumation for human rights. 

In Still Life with Bones, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty learns to see the dead body with a forensic eye. She examines bones for marks of torture and fatal wounds—hands bound by rope, machete cuts—and also for signs of identity: how life shapes us down to the bone. A weaver is recognized from the tiny bones of the toes, molded by kneeling before a loom; a girl is identified alongside her pet dog. In the tenderness of understanding these bones, forensics not only offers proof of mass atrocity but also tells the story of each life lost. 

Working with forensic teams at mass grave sites and in labs, Hagerty discovers how bones bear witness to crimes against humanity and how exhumation can bring families meaning after unimaginable loss. She also comes to see how cutting-edge science can act as ritual—a way of caring for the dead with symbolic force that can repair societies torn apart by violence.

Weaving together powerful stories about investigative breakthroughs, histories of violence and resistance, and her own forensic coming-of-age, Hagerty crafts a moving portrait of the living and the dead.

Author

© Hélène Ressayres
Alexa Hagerty is an anthropologist researching science, technology, and human rights. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and is an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge. Her research has received honors and funding from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Ethnological Society, among other institutions. She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wired, Social Anthropology, and Palais de Tokyo. View titles by Alexa Hagerty

Excerpt

Chapter 1

A Lovely Grave for Learning


It is September, and I am standing on a hill in El Quiché, Guatemala, with a pickax in my hand. For the past month, I have been working alongside forensic anthropologists who are recovering the bodies of the victims of one of Latin America’s longest, bloodiest armed conflicts. We dig trenches, roughly eight feet long and six feet deep—­about the size of a coffin. It is backward grave digging, pulling bodies out of the ground, not putting them in. Plunging the pickax, I imagine hitting a body, and the idea makes me cringe and gives me a visceral reaction of horror. I break my swing and let the pickax land softly on the dirt when I think of this. Before coming here, I had read anthropologist Victoria Sanford’s Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala, an account of her fieldwork in the mid-­1990s documenting the aftermath of La Violencia, as the conflict is locally known. At Sanford’s first encounter with a mass grave, she repeated to herself: “Don’t faint. Don’t vomit.” I adopt this as my prayer, too. Let us find the bodies, but let me not hit anything—­anyone—­with a shovel.

Everything begins to look like a body. The white roots of plants and sticks look like bones. Rotted leaves look like fabric; our footprints dried in the mud look like the rubber soles of shoes. Underground, deep down, we find tunnels from moles, colonies of black-­winged insects, thick white grubs, and ants. Everything seems like potent proof. And they could be clues. Dead bodies attract these subterranean creatures. There are cycles of life associated with decay. Even after thirty years, when flesh has decomposed, there are still trace nutrients. Like schools of fish in a shipwreck, things take up residence in the armature of bones. As I dig, I think of the lines from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-­change

Into something rich and strange.

Thousands of men, women, and children are buried in Guatemalan earth, lives violently made into bones, hidden in this strange underground world.

As we dig, forensic team members examine the soil: reddish loam and friable clay. They are looking for evidence that the layers are revuelto, mixed. If the soil has been disturbed, it shows that the area has been previously dug up—­potentially a sign of buried bodies. Blended strata mark the earth like a scar. Shoveling is repetitive work, physically exhausting, but not boring. It is electrified by the promise of finding the bodies. But after hours, we still find nothing.

A few times a day, someone unearths pottery shards. We gather around to look at them. One day a farmer brings us a ceramic figure he found while tilling his maize field. The clay head is about the size of a quarter, and the face bears a serious, concerned expression. It looks like something you would see in a museum. It almost certainly should be in a museum. The farmer wants to sell it for 100 USD, but buying it would be illegal. A photographer visiting the site pays him 5 USD to take a picture of it. This haunting little face has been unearthed after being buried perhaps hundreds of years in the sorrowful dirt of Guatemala, where the bones of a decades-­old genocide are stacked on top of the bones of five hundred years of colonial conquest. Excavation reveals history as a material presence, the earth as a calendar. We cut through the matted sod of the present, digging through stratified years. Another day, we find part of a clay vessel, its graceful rim nearly intact. Esteban is one of several team members who are classically trained archaeologists and have worked at sites like Tikal and Cotzumalhuapa. He says it is prehispánico, dating it to before the Spanish invaded, greedy for gold, sugar, and slaves. Before what Maya accounts call the arrival of the “force of great suffering” and the beginning of “misery and affliction.” Esteban throws the fragment back into the pit, like catch-­and-­release fishing. It is illegal to take any of the shards. Anyway, they aren’t what we are here for.

•••

The mass graves we are searching for are the grim legacy of the armed conflict in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996. I am training with one of the world’s top forensic teams, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, or the Fundación de Antro­pología Forense de Guatemala, known by its acronym, FAFG. I’m learning how to exhume and identify the dead. Every morning we make the forty-­minute drive from the cement-­block rooms we’re renting in a bigger town through the mountainous province of El Quiché. Villages dot the countryside with clusters of cement schools and houses and stores painted with Coca-­Cola signs. Most towns have two or three evangelical churches, eye-­catching because they are the only freshly painted buildings. Mostly we drive past milpa, steep hillsides planted with corn.

We pull over on a deeply rutted dirt road. Esteban hands us pickaxes and shovels from the back of the pickup truck. It has been raining, and the path through the woods is slick. We swing the tools into the muddy ground to anchor our steps, trudging through a tunnel of trees. After a ten-minute walk, the path opens into a field. It’s an ordinary field, a rolling meadow ringed by trees. The sky has cleared. With the sun shining, it looks like a good place for a picnic.

It takes a moment to notice the holes in the ground, dozens of short trenches. These are exploratory excavations, abandoned when they yielded no bodies. The holes are half filled with rainwater and trash now. So far, the team has found about twenty bodies in small graves of two or three people, but this is just the beginning. Members of the forensic team guess there are two hundred bodies here under the earth. Maybe more. Mass graves riddle Guatemala. Most are still waiting to be exhumed. Many will never be found.

In the cool morning, we work above the field on a ridge that drops into thick woods. From the excavation site, you can hear but not see a river running nearby. As the crow flies, we are not that far from the nearest town. Across the valley, you can just make out the cemetery with its brightly painted gravestones and its wall of nichos, where the dead rest aboveground in something like a mortuary apartment block. Sometimes strains of music from the local church float to us. It is easy to forget that we are so close to the village. It feels isolated.

In the 1980s, this was the site of Xolosinay, an army garrison long since abandoned. Soldiers detained residents of surrounding villages in the camp. The families of those who were taken here never saw them again. No one knows how many people were killed and buried here. One man managed to escape. The soldiers had ordered the prisoners to dig a trench, then lined them up in front of it and shot them one by one. During the executions, the lone survivor managed to dive into the underbrush. A soldier fired at him, hitting him in the arm, but he fled into the deep woods. He spent years on the run in the mountains.

In the three decades since soldiers held the man prisoner, the site has changed. The soldiers are gone. The tents and paths have disappeared. The trees have grown. But he remembers where he stood in front of the pit of bodies—­on the crest of the hill where we are digging.

•••

As part of the peace process begun in 1996, the United Nations–­sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification quantified the staggering toll of the violence in Guatemala. In a country of eight million people, there were 200,000 dead. An estimated 45,000 people had been disappeared. More than a million people suffered forced displacement. There were 626 massacres and 430 villages razed. The truth commission determined the Guatemalan state to be responsible for 93 percent of the documented abuses. More than 80 percent of the victims of the armed conflict were Maya. The commission declared that the state had committed genocide.

The numbers reported by the truth commission are shocking, but they do not capture the cruelty of La Violencia. People told me stories of babies beaten against walls, pregnant women eviscerated, men burned alive, girls raped in front of their families, boys decapitated, people hacked to death with machetes. These gruesome testimonials have been confirmed by truth commission investigations, chronicled by human rights groups, and documented by forensic evidence.

Praise

“Haunted and fascinating . . . lyrical . . . The stories of these excavators of the past are told compellingly in Still Life with Bones.”The New York Times Book Review

“Moving, profound and very readable . . . There’s a spiritual element as [Hagerty] speaks of learning to ‘read’ the bones and the ghosts that result.”—Financial Times

“In this meditative ethnography, a social anthropologist . . . delicately explores the art, the science, and the sacredness of exhumation in the aftermath of genocide. . . . Throughout the book, just as in forensics, ‘the ritual and the analytical buzz in electric proximity.’”The New Yorker

“Moving and beautiful, harrowing and horrifying . . . A single sentence can stop you in your tracks. . . . Still Life with Bones is stark and upsetting, but also deeply humane and shot through with a hard-won wisdom. You will see forensics in a new light.”New Scientist

“Chilling and vital. . . . sensitive and thought-provoking.”The Times

“Visceral . . . a timely reminder of the legacies of war and genocide . . . a lyrical and powerful meditation on the meaning of justice, grief and ritual.”The Conversation

“Powerful and harrowing . . . told with clarity, compassion and utmost respect for those cruelly killed and for those who grieve for them.”The Irish Times
 
“Haunting . . . [Still Life with Bones] will stay with you long after the final world.”The Sunday Post (UK)

“Philosophical, poetic, never mawkish, Hagerty’s book has the makings of a classic. . . . [Hagerty] is an exceptional writer, eloquently exploring both the practicalities and the symbolism of her work, sidestepping clunky metaphors while grave while finding startling new ones.”The Times Literary Supplement

“This book knocked me flat. . . . This kind of book is perfect for people who have morbid interests but want to use them for good. Books like this help readers gain new perspectives, learn important history, and connect to our shared human nature that finds death-related rituals important.”Book Riot

Still Life with Bones is at once horrifying and impossibly hopeful.”—Francisco Cantú, New York Times bestselling author of The Line Becomes a River

“Meticulous, luminous, utterly brilliant . . . The prose is as delicate and sharp as a rib cage, but the book’s beating heart is Hagerty’s wise and compassionate voice, a welcome guide through the atrocities she documents.”—Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body

“Hagerty, a Chekhovian angel of science and poetry, has written an intimate, moving, mesmerizing account. The world is what it is, its global sorrows ever mounting, but this treasure of a book somehow makes it more bearable.”—Francisco Goldman, author of Monkey Boy, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

“An electrifying read, full  of profound personal insight and intellectual generosity . . . Bones tell chilling stories about our past, but they preserve, too, the potency of alternative outcomes. Hagerty unlocks this possibility with wisdom and compassion.”—Cristina Rivera Garza, author of Liliana’s Invincible Summer

“Touching and achingly honest—a most amazing account of training as a forensic anthropologist . . . When Hagerty talks about ‘lives being violently made into bones,’ I defy you not to be moved.”—Sue Black, author of All That Remains

“Soulful but unsentimental. . . . A powerful meditation on life, death, and sorting out what can be saved of death in life.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.”BookPage (starred review)

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