war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

She found out she was pregnant the day Russia invaded

09.11.2022    available: Українською | На русском
Denys Volokha
Previously, we published and translated into English an account of the everyday life of a doctor in a bomb shelter. But in fact, the story of doctor Hanna Shevchyk is larger. After the start of the war in Mariupol, her family moved to a bomb shelter under a candy factory. Soon Russians arrived.

The 31-year-old neonatologist did not believe Russians when, in the absence of communications in Mariupol, they claimed that Kyiv had already been captured. She refused to be evacuated to Russia.

Previously, we published and translated into English an account of the everyday life of a doctor in a bomb shelter. But in fact, the story of doctor Hanna Shevchyk is larger. In 2014, in the 4th month of pregnancy, she was forced to flee Lugansk. On 24 February 2022, she found out that she was pregnant for the second time. After the start of the war in Mariupol, her family moved to a bomb shelter under a candy factory. Soon Russians arrived.

I am 31 years old and currently in Truskavets in the Lviv Region. My husband, our child, and I are here together. We left Mariupol on 2 April, 2022.

The first day of the war began for us, as everyone else, on 24 February. It started at 4 in the morning when my husband and I woke up from a loud noise and a big explosion. We woke up, and I asked my husband: “What is this?” He responded: “I don’t know, maybe an attack has begun.”  Regardless, he began to get ready for work. He left, and an hour later, my mother called: “Anya, the war has begun.” It is all over Ukraine, in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Lviv. Shooting is everywhere. We must think of what to do next. I woke my son with the words: “Son, the war has begun.” He said, “What does it mean?” I explained what he had to do and how to behave. We already had experience because, in 2014, we left Lugansk. Therefore, we knew how to act under explosions, air strikes, and artillery shelling. We learned how to hide and where to hide. We told our son that he needed to fall, open his mouth, and cover his ears. I immediately started to collect documents. We had two backpacks with medicines and with documents. Also, I began to draw water because I knew from experience that water would be scarce. Therefore, we filled all the empty water bottles and all the containers in the house with water.

I packed my backpack, collected water, and waited for my husband to come home from work. I called him, asking what was going on. He worked in Selpo [supermarket chain], located in the Eastern mini-district where the attack began. He said: “We are urgently taking people out of the store and closing it.” When I asked why, he answered that the neighboring houses were shelled. He came home, and 2 hours later, his store was hit. He was a store manager. If he had not brought the people out, many would have suffered, including his colleagues and civilians who came to buy produce.

We lived in the Left Bank district on the outskirts of the city. I am a doctor by training, a neonatologist-pediatrician. I worked at the Livoberezhny Maternity Hospital No. 2, and I had to go to work the next day, 25 February. Therefore, I tried in the morning to get to work. Unfortunately, the shelling of the Eastern mini-district began on the 24th, and this was close to my hospital, only 100 meters away. The shelling of Livoberezhny started on 25 February, and the neighboring houses were soon hit. Also, I had to walk to work through the military base occupied by the Azov troops. It took me an hour to get to work because I had to hide from the shelling.

When I arrived, I discovered that half of the employees did not show up. They were afraid for their lives and the lives of their relatives and children. Yet, I couldn’t quit my job because I understood: “Who, if not me, will do this work? Both women and children need my help.” We made an administrative decision to evacuate the entire maternity ward to the shelter. We equipped it with improvised beds. We also created improvised delivery rooms there. Finally, we sent all the patients to the shelter, and all spent the night there. The night was restless. Everyone tried to take a nap, but it was very noisy.

There were powerful attacks every hour, and everything rattled. We tried to calm the women, but they panicked and couldn’t comprehend how and when this would end. The next day I tried to go home. I started walking and noticed our soldiers in cars and tanks everywhere. They were moving troops to the outskirts, to the Left Bank. There were mighty explosions at the approaches to our city. From our Livoberezhna Square, we could see smoke coming from distant houses. Shells hit everywhere. It hit the Leningradsky district, which was nearby. People already began evacuation from there, but our Livoberezhny community was not evacuated.

I was able to find open stores, but they were half-empty. The only things I could buy after standing in line for almost 2 hours were some bars and some quick snacks; there was nothing else, and no canned food that could be stored for a long time. I also went to the pharmacy and bought some medicines. Pharmacies were also practically empty, but I got the essential thing — antibiotics, as I anticipated infections might appear. Also, I took Esmarch's tourniquet in case someone needed to stop the bleeding; then, I could provide emergency medical care. There were no bandages in the pharmacy or cotton pads, as people bought everything they could.

Two hours later, I returned home. The explosions became very loud that day, and I had to go to work again the next day. During the day, I couldn't even enter the kitchen to prepare food because the house was shaking and shaking. I realized that the shelling began everywhere. We moved into the corridor. We have a tiny corridor, literally 1.5 meters long. Only my son's mattress from a bunk bed fit in there. My husband unscrewed all the doors and put them on the balcony to close the glass, so we got additional protection. We knew that we needed two walls to stop the debris a bit. So, we closed all the walls with the doors and cabinets to achieve additional protection. And so, we spent the night in the hallway.

Somewhere from 00:00 to 4:00, it was calm, and it was even more frightening. We tried to sleep, but there was such tension as we thought about what would happen tomorrow. The three of us could hardly fit sideways in the corridor, but finally, we got some sleep. In the morning, we were awakened again by a powerful explosion. It turned out that Russians began to aim at Azov, located near the maternity hospital. They attacked our military and also tried to destroy the city's infrastructure. My husband suggested not going to work, but I said: “No, I'll go. I have to.” I arrived late because the earth began to shake when I went out into the street. I became scared and ran upstairs to sit it out a little. After that, I dashed from place to place and barely made it to work.

We no longer went upstairs but immediately went to the shelter, where we assisted our patients. We delivered four beautiful children. Primarily girls were born, which pleased us because, as they say, if men are born, there will be more war. So we tried to think positively, believing everything would end. That day we heard shots from the machine guns near the windows. We thought it might be sabotage groups working, gunners, and perhaps our police were catching them. We tried to stay in, and no one went outside; we were always in the equipped basement.

Due to significant destructions in the Eastern mini-district, people from neighboring houses and employees' families began to come to us on that day. Our chief medical officer, obstetrician-gynecologists, and other doctors brought their families: husbands, wives, children, and grandchildren. Our basement began to fill up with many people, and all were on edge. However, they tried to hold on. The night was also restless as we could hear the explosions getting closer and closer.

We began to think about how to organize our work. We thought about taking shifts and decided that we would work two days for the time being. Two other doctors and I agreed to work according to such a schedule. We thought that two full days' shifts would be okay. It meant that I had to go to work on 2 March. However, on 2 March, I couldn’t get out of my house. After I came home, the shelling started near our house. My husband and I went to the balcony to get a phone connection as it was already intermittent. We had a view of the sea from the balcony, and we saw a rocket flying in front of us, then falling into the water. I figured - this is it; a complete nightmare begins. Now it is not somewhere; it directly concerns my family and me.

All my relatives from the city's central district called me. They told us to come there. We will be affected because we are on the city's outskirts, but everything would be safe in the center. We resisted for the first few days, and on 2 March, transport stopped running, and our heating, gas, and electricity stopped working as the Russian military damaged all communications. In the end, we were better off where we were. It was relatively silent; only shelling was heard. However, I was scared. I brought pillows and blankets into the vestibule so that we could sit there and not in the apartment. Our neighbors, who shared the vestibule with us, said: “No problem, don't worry.” I told them I'd organize a temporary quarter here just in case. I also brought water and some food, so we could have a bite to eat if we suddenly couldn’t enter the apartment or, God forbid, it won’t be there.

We sat there with a pot turned into a lamp because there was no light anymore, and it was evening. My husband made an improvised lamp: oil and cotton wool in a pot. Once you set it on fire, it burns for a long time. We didn’t have any candles and couldn’t buy them in a store. We never had problems with electricity and were not prepared for extended outages. We tried to heat the water using that pot so the child could have something warm. However, my husband and I only had dry food. We also had canned food, and that's how we ate.

There was a powerful explosion in the evening, so we went into the vestibule. Later we went into the apartment because it became quieter. We thought we would be in the corridor: if something happened, we would immediately rush into the vestibule. On 3 March, at 5 in the morning, a powerful explosion woke us up, and we ran out into the vestibule. After 10 minutes, our neighbors ran out too. We were surprised because they had said earlier: “Everything will be fine with us.” However, they rushed out, turning over the dog's bowl and spilling the water. It was very emotional, and suddenly Olya, our neighbor, sat down and began to cry. I said: “Olya, what happened?” She answered: “Anya, we don't have our balcony anymore.”  We realized that our building was hit directly. We spent all day in the vestibule, helping each other.

Hanna's neighbor, Olga Shevchenko, also told her story: ‘I entered the Metro and burst into tears’, — a girl who lived for three weeks in Mariupol under shelling

My husband and I tried to tell everyone what to do and how to act. We had doors with glass in the vestibule, and we feared it could hurt someone if shuttered. We had blankets, and at each explosion, we covered ourselves with these blankets. The children, of course, were terrified. Every time the building shook, my son clutched to me. Arseniy, the son of our neighbor Olya, clanged to her. We told them everything would be fine and over someday. I wrote a note with the phone numbers of all my relatives and told Olya that if something happens to us and the child is left alone, please get in touch with someone to take care of the child. Olya also explained the same to her son. We had provisions for the kids and notes with phone numbers. I said: “Son, you will approach the military and ask them to contact your relatives so they can pick you up.” He answered: “Where would you be?” I told him: “We could be killed. This is war.” Of course, he cried, then calmed down and said: “Mom, everything will be fine.” We endured for his sake because the children do not allow you to relax, and you keep going. If adults become hysterical and cry, what would happen to a child? We also tried to support our neighbors.

We spent that day in the vestibule until night, then went back to the apartment as there was silence. In the first days of the war, they hit city before midnight. Even the kids knew that. However, it was quiet after midnight and until 4 in the morning. I could not call work as we had no connection and no Internet. Phones were running out of power, and mobile communications became impossible. Sometimes, we could catch a phone signal outside, on the balcony. My husband devised a trick: we climbed onto the balcony and attached the phone to the rail with scotch tape. Then in an hour, it would pick up some connection. That allowed us to read at least some news of events in Mariupol. There were the most inspiring speeches in the news — Mariupol is holding on, and everything is in order. Don’t panic, stay in a shelter and you'll be fine. Obviously, this did not inspire us. We couldn't keep in touch with our family. I only knew that my brother, his wife, and nephew were hiding at a confectionery factory in the central district. The shelter was built during the Soviet times. I also knew my mother had been in the regional hospital since 24 February. She was an operating nurse and told me she would stay. That's all I knew, but we couldn't get in touch.

On the evening of 5 March, the phone suddenly rang. My husband left it attached outside, on the balcony, and we heard it ringing. My husband ran to the balcony, at his peril and risk, as we usually did not go out. We mainly stayed in the corridor or vestibule. He picked up the phone, and Vika, my brother's wife, was on the other side. She asked: “How are you?" I said: “Vika, we have shuttered glass on the neighboring balcony, and our glass is damaged as well, and a shard got stuck in my son’s room closet.” Then I started crying, saying we couldn’t get out and we'd die here. By that time, I knew I was pregnant. I learned about it on 24 February. I was consumed by fear, not able to cope with the horror. Finally, Vika said: “I will get you out of there by hook or by crook.” I said: “How will you do it?” She answered: “I don't know, but I'll beg everyone to help and take you away.”

The shard shattered the glass and hit the closet in the children’s room. Photo by Anna Shevchik

SMS arrived an hour later. Vika wrote that on the 5 March, there would be a humanitarian corridor from the police station, only 10 minute walk from our house. We have to be there at 10 in the morning, and there would be Red Cross, buses, and a humanitarian corridor. “They will pick you up and either bring you to us or take you somewhere safe. They will take you out of this hell.” There was no shelling in the Central district at that time. At that moment, it was quiet there. The hell was in the East and at the Left Bank.

It was a good thing we didn't go anywhere on the 5th. The explosions were loud, hit our house, and we had two floors on fire. The men were able to put out the fire themselves. Thanks to them for taking the risk. Those who had fire extinguishers in the car used them to put the fire out. If not for them, our whole house would have burned down. My husband and I went onto the balcony and saw neighboring houses on fire, and it did not subside for several days. We heard people screaming, asking for help, but no one came. The ambulance did not come, and the firefighters did not come. Finally, I told my husband: “Let’s go and give help. We need to do something. How can we not help people? If we were hit, or something happened to us, no one would help us?”

I could not comprehend why there was a war in 2022, people were dying, and no one was helping. We learned later that an ambulance substation and fire departments were destroyed in the first days of the war. The cars and buildings were smashed. There was no one to go out and help. However, we couldn’t justify them at that moment and felt offended and angry.

Next, we learned that the square with the police station was shelled. It was in the news, and people also received text messages. The entire block was destroyed, and all houses and shops near the police station were burned. I don't know if there were people, but someone tried to evacuate and went there. This thought was even more frightening because I thought we could’ve been there with our child and could’ve suffered like others.

6 March was my husband's birthday. We sat together, and I said: “Perhaps, it is the last birthday we are together, alive, and can breathe and speak.” In the evening, the military came to us. They knocked, opened the door, and said: “Is this the Shevchik family? You have 2 minutes to get ready; we are picking you up.” It turned out my sister-in-law organized this. She and my brother sent messages to all the military, begging them to take us away and save us. We collected two backpacks that I had packed. We took our cat and a small suitcase, mostly with children's things. We only took one pair of pants and one T-shirt for ourselves, and we left with them.

They put us in an armored car and drove us. They asked: “Where should we take you?” We said we needed to go to the city center to the confectionery factory with the shelter underneath. Our brother, sister-in-law, and nephew were there. When we got into the car, my son asked me: “What will happen now?” And I said: “Now sit and pray that we will arrive safely.” Our drive was like a movie picture. We heard the shelling everywhere and were riding in a military vehicle. On the one hand, you think you are safe because the military is transporting you. What could happen? On the other hand, you think: if the Russian military is around, they will notice the opponents' car and want to destroy it with us. It was not fun, but, thank God, we reached the goal. We knocked on the door, which did not open for a while, but finally, they opened it.

We went in. Of course, we were delighted. We cried — for the first time, we gave freedom to our emotions. It was so strange for us to go down to the dark basement with only a few flashlights. Many people had been waiting for us for a week and asked: “How are you? Are you all here?” When we walked in, they started applauding as if we were movie stars walking down the alley. We saw people everywhere and realized that the conditions were bearable. We felt at home.

My brother Zhenya was the leader and the manager of a store called Dzerkalny at the confectionery factory in the city center, the only shop that worked at that time. Nothing else worked in the city. This single supermarket kept working until the very last moment, but they closed it the next day after our arrival. My brother accidentally discovered a shelter with large iron doors from the times of the USSR. It was double-armored. There was a large room, and it was located deep underground. There were even anti-radioactive substances: “Drink if there is the threat of radiation.” They have probably been there since Mariupol was called Zhdanov. That was a very, very old shelter that had not been open for many years.

Of course, the air was terrible. There was a lot of dust. My brother brought there the pallets used for packing produce. We put cardboard over these pallets and created makeshift beds. My brother and his wife moved there on the 27 February. Their son had a hip injury in July. He is six years old and has had four operations, and for almost half a year, he could not walk. In the shelter, he learned to walk. They moved there because he was immobilized, and it was impossible to move with him quickly.

They closed the store because looting began in our city. Any stores left unattended, hit by a shell, or damaged anyway, became a prize for people. It was like scenes from apocalyptic movies that show people breaking glass, opening doors, and taking everything while chaos begins. They beat each other, fought, and it all happened to us. Dzerkalny, of course, was no exception. It was the only store in the city with leftover products and was still working. Therefore, marauders began to periodically break in there, especially in the evening when the store was closed. Our men in the shelter all grouped up, went upstairs to the store, and drove these marauders away. That was our police force who tried to make sure that the looters did not get into the store.

Of course, thanks to this store, we could purchase a lot for our families. We had products that were not available anywhere else in the city. Everyone had their stack of provisions, and we knew we would survive. The only problem was water. There was no water in the city and no water delivery from elsewhere. This is where we had a problem. We did not divide water into drinking and technical. If there was any water from the puddles, melted snow, or rain, it was beautiful because we could use it. You can boil it, make something out of it, make soup and cook food.

The store was closed because a man with a gun came running and threatened to shoot. He said: “You are profiting from people; you are making money when people are starving.” To which my brother responded: “People, what are you doing? At our peril and risk, under shelling, we try to sell you products that are not ours. The administration bought it, and it's their money.” After that, however, the chaos began, and my brother decided to close the store. After that, we had to run upstairs to the store several times every night to check it and ensure it was still intact.

Then one Absolut supermarket contacted us, and the manager said it was possible to transport the products to them so that they could sell them. We collected what was left, and the men transferred it into pallets, loaded trucks, and these trucks left. The next day, a shell flew into this store and destroyed it. We were so disappointed in losing the food that could’ve saved so many people from hunger. It went nowhere, and nobody got it.

There were more than 400 people in our shelter initially while the confectionery factory was still intact. Then, a couple of days after our arrival, the central district began to be heavily shelled. The nearest houses were damaged, and the air strikes began. It was the worst thing possible: a plane drops a missile, and almost nothing remains of the house, or it has a huge hole inside. The buildings became black and incinerated. We settled in the shelter, where we were about 300 people. Also, neighboring cellars had more than 100 people there. More families settled down on the first and second floors. The plant was a 7-story building; many came from destroyed neighboring houses. They found rooms and tried to settle down there. They broke the locks and went into these rooms so they had somewhere to spend the night, someplace to stay.

At first, we had one toilet on the second floor, so we had to climb up from the shelter to the second floor. This was another trial. Firstly, there were many people, and there was always a big queue for the toilet. My belly grew large because Lyalya grew up inside telling me: “You need to do your business more often.” There was glass everywhere around the toilet and stairs because the factory building had a massive glass wall. The corridor leading to the bathroom was not long, but with large windows. With shelling and houses around us on fire, I had to think twice before going to the toilet, but I needed it. We used to crawl there and were shaking once we reached it. You are trembling and cannot understand what you wanted and why you came here. We also had to take the children there, which was even worse. I was so happy I had a boy because boys can pee in a bottle. We just collected bottles afterward and poured the content into the street.

Unfortunately, my son has kidney disease. He has hydronephrosis of the kidney, and he often has needs, especially during times of stress. In general, the trips to the toilet were unsafe. For about a week, our life at the factory was more or less normal, but soon the attacks started nearby. Shards of glass and concrete began to fall out we had to stop our trips to the second floor. Our men began to think about where to organize a new bathroom. Finally, they made a new hole in the sewer, which served as an improvised outhouse, and we started using it. Unfortunately, it was unsanitary as we had a lot of people. There was no water, we couldn’t wash our hands, and we started getting infections in the shelter.

A bomb shelter acted as a separate system: it had its kitchen, police, and ambulance

We established various services. We had police officers watching the looters. My brother and my husband were there. My brother broke his arm fighting one of the marauders. The guy shouted: “This is for the children. Why are you begrudging it?” However, he was pulling a case of champagne, a case of vodka, and pineapples. My brother was so angry, and he said: “You are an animal. If you said what the child needs, I would’ve given it to you, but you take alcohol.”  I had to help my brother with his broken arm. I made an improvised splinter out of iron meshwork. Then we used rags to bandage his arm.

We had a kitchen; some men found wood and pallets and cut them to make fire. Women cooked, peeled potatoes and carrots, and made soup. We cooked separately for children and adults. We tried to find clean water for children: from shops and warehouses. Adults, of course, drank any water. We collected water from the fire station, snow, and rain. We also cooked porridge to fill our stomachs. Everyone was busy working. I was a doctor.

The military came to us constantly, and we gave them food. They brought us medicines or other things we needed. During that period, it was impossible to leave the city at all. You could only use your transport. There were no humanitarian corridors, it was dangerous to walk on foot, and there was no guarantee you would get through in your vehicle. Only by hearsay we knew that some people could escape, but everyone at their peril and risk. If people had a car, they would try to leave in small groups, and sometimes a few cars would gather and go.

When the Russians came, they kept us inside the shelter for four days.

They came with enormous machine guns aimed at us and said we couldn’t come out for four days, explaining that they would attempt a purge. We understood what, in their opinion, a purge was. They will kill our military and clear the territory from civilians. They wanted to build their bases here to hide behind our skirts safely.

Our kitchen did not work for four days because we could neither go out nor heat water for the children. We also had babies. Well, thank God, we survived these four days. Then, early in the morning, they walked around, checking everyone's documents. They asked who was looking at passports and documents. They asked about our families and where they are now. Men were undressed, and they searched for tattoos. They checked that there was no mark on the shoulder from the butt, and the hands had no gunpowder traces or other marks.

After they finished checking us, they began to tell us all sorts of tales. We learned that Kyiv was taken, and Ukraine is under Russia. The Russian government in Ukraine is flourishing. We didn't know anything because we'd been without contact for a month. Some people believed them. There was one looking like a Russian peasant who had the nickname “Cheater” written on his helmet. He said: Kyiv was taken, Russia will be here, we will build a new city, and everything will be great in it, new hospitals, schools, buildings. Don’t you know that the DPR (Donets People’s Republic) is in Russia?” I said: “No. It is a recognized republic, yes, but not within Russia.” He said: “If you want, I will shoot you, and this will solve your questions and problems.” They were not educated and behaved abominably. They were monsters that didn't care about women and children.

When our girls went to get water, they could shoot at their legs. We told them: “Don’t you see a woman walking? What are you doing!?”  They answered that they didn't care. They didn't care if you survived or not. Then, they threatened us: “Now we will change the location and go to another district, and another Russian military group will come here instead. They will show you hell! You try to open your mouth, and they will kill you.”

— Were they regular Russian military or DPR people?

— This “Cheater” was a Russian military man. At first, there were the DPR troops. They said they were from Donetsk. Later, the Russian military personnel came. They looked mature, 40+, and there were no conscripts. These were people who had experience. Then, the Chechens came after them. They were easily recognizable as they spoke with an accent. Also, their appearance betrayed them. They were generally not bright and very rough. We feared them because they could destroy everything in their path when they passed. When they walked by you, they didn’t care if you stood there, and there was no way to converse with them. The Russians at least tried to say something, but they told us lies, and nothing seemed to matter to the Chechens.

Also, they were afraid. The Russians feared that the Azov people were among us, our Ukrainian military. They talked about this more than once. They asked if someone was hiding among us and where our army was deployed. We always answered: “We don't know. We have not seen a single military man all this time. We're sitting here, and we don't see anyone or hear anyone.” However, we all saw and knew. We did not believe they captured Kyiv. We discussed it and said, “Well, how is this possible? They couldn't take Mariupol for a month and a half and still can't break through, but they took Kyiv? If they did, then why didn’t the war stop?” No, we couldn't believe it.

They said that we could leave, but only to Russian territory. They told us that there were buses in the regional hospital that would take us first to Donetsk, then to Rostov-on-Don. There is no other way, only Russia. “Either you will perish here and die of hunger, or we will kill you, or else go to Russian territory.” But, of course, no one wanted to go.

I hate them for everything they did to our people, for all the mothers who lost their children, my son who lost his childhood, and my mother who lost everything.

She had a four-room apartment, and her entire house collapsed from the 9th to the 6th floor. She had three of us, and she has worked all her life to give everything to us. She could’ve stayed quietly in her apartment in retirement, happy that all her children have good lives. We bought an apartment in September and made repairs to it. She was supposed to move in soon. We rented our apartment on the Left Bank but bought all the furniture and other stuff. Now we don't have an apartment, and we have nothing. It's terrifying and a shame that we went through so much hell. We lost everything in Luhansk, moved from there, and started again in Mariupol.

I left Luhansk while four months pregnant, and my son was born in 2014. Now everything is repeated. You can imagine how difficult it is. Words cannot express how difficult it is. I had such anger that I said: “I’d rather die here, I’ll die here, but I don’t set foot in Russia. I won't go there for anything.” I understand that the people there are not to blame. I know that it is the authorities and the military. But I hate them and can't look those people in the eyes. They are silent, do nothing, and continue living in that country.

Half of our people in Mariupol are Greeks, my mother is Belarusian, and there are many Russians. How can you come and kill the Russian-speaking population next to you and not provide an opportunity to escape? What kind of war is it when people cannot save their families? Why do people need all this?

In the second part, please read about the evacuation of Hanna's family from Mariupol, her emotions after leaving, and her mother. She came close to committing suicide, thinking that her children were dead.

The article was prepared by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group with the support of the Prague Civil Society Centre
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