Were you looking for the other Congo? That's the Republic of Congo.
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Formerly known as Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa’s second largest country and the fourth most populated nation in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo is extremely rich in natural resources, but political instability, a lack of infrastructure and a culture of corruption have limited development, extraction and exploitation efforts. The land is home to great stretches of savannah, as well as dramatic volcanic mountain peaks in the east.
Currently, the situation is volatile, particularly for foreigners. The United States recently renewed its recommendation for travelers to stay away from the country, especially areas outside the capital of Kinshasa.
The area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was populated as early as 10,000 years ago and settled in the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. by Bantus from present-day Nigeria. During its history the area has also been known as Congo, Congo Free State, Belgian Congo and Zaire. The Kingdom of Kongo was a powerful kingdom that existed from the 14th to the 18th century. It was the dominant force in the region until the arrival of the Portuguese. Second in importance was the Anziku Kingdom.
The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through the Association Internationale Africaine, a non-governmental organization. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On November 15, 1908 King Léopold II of Belgium formally relinquished personal control of the Congo Free State. The renamed Belgian Congo came under the administration of the Belgian parliament. The Belgian administration might be most charitably characterized as paternalistic colonialism. Roman Catholic and Protestant churches dominated the education system and the curricula reflected Christian and Western values. In 1948 Christian missions controlled 99.6% of educational facilities. They had little regard for native culture and beliefs. Native schools provided a mainly religious and vocational education.
The Congo was granted its independence on June 30, 1960, adopting the name "Republic of the Congo" (République du Congo). As the French colony of Middle Congo (Moyen Congo) also chose the name Republic of Congo upon receiving its independence, the two countries were more commonly known as Congo-Léopoldville and Congo-Brazzaville, after their capital cities. President Mobutu changed the country's official name to Zaire in 1966. The current name was adopted in 1997. During the first 6-7 years of the Democratic Republic of Congo, there were two wars, under the rule of Laurent-Desire Kabila and later his son Joseph (from 2001 onwards). Upon taking office Kabila called for multilateral peace talks to end the war. He partly succeeded in February 2001 when a further peace deal was brokered between Kabila, Rwanda and Uganda leading to the apparent withdrawal of foreign troops. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, arrived in April 2001. Talks between Kabila and the rebel leaders, held in Sun City, lasted a full six weeks, beginning in April 2002. In June they signed a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo.
DR Congo had a transitional government in July 2003 until the election was over. A constitution was approved by voters and on July 30, 2006 the Congo held its first multi-party elections since independence in 1960. After this Joseph Kabila took 45% of the votes and his opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba took 20%. That was the origin of a fight between the two parts from August 20-22, 2006 in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa. Sixteen people died before policemen and UN mission MONUC took control of the city. A new election was held on October 29, 2006, which Kabila won with 70% of the vote. Bemba has publicly commented on election "irregularities," despite the fact that every neutral observer has praised the elections. On December 6, 2006 the Transitional Government came to an end as Joseph Kabila was sworn in as President. Currently, the position of the country is still extremely unstable and various parts are still off-limits for travellers, as it is just to dangerous.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is situated at the heart of sub-Saharan Africa and is bounded by (clockwise from the southwest) Angola, the South Atlantic Ocean, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika, and Zambia. The country lies between latitudes 6°N and 14°S, and longitudes 12° and 32°E. It straddles the Equator, with one-third to the north and two-thirds to the south. The size of Congo, 2,345,408 square kilometres, is slightly greater than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway.
The massive expanse of lush jungle covers most of the vast, low-lying central basin of the river, which slopes toward the Atlantic Ocean in the west. This area is surrounded by plateaus merging into savannas in the south and southwest, by mountainous terraces in the west, and dense grasslands extending beyond the Congo River in the north. High, glaciated mountains are found in the extreme eastern region (Rwenzori Mountains). The name for the Congo state is derived in part from the river. The river basin (meaning the Congo River and all of its myriad tributaries) occupies nearly the entire country and an area of nearly 1,000,000 km2.
On 17 January 2002 Mount Nyiragongo erupted in Congo, with the lava running out at 64 km/h and 46 metres wide. One of the three streams of extremely fluid lava flowed through the nearby city of Goma, killing 45 and leaving 120,000 homeless. Four hundred thousand people were evacuated from the city during the eruption. The lava poisoned the water of Lake Kivu, killing fish. Only two planes left the local airport because of the possibility of the explosion of stored petrol. The lava passed the airport but ruined the runway, entrapping several airplanes. Six months after the 2002 eruption, nearby Mount Nyamulagira also erupted. Mount Nyamulagira also erupted in 2006 and again in January 2010.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve is located in the Ituri Forest in the northeast of the country near Sudan and Uganda and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is mainly a protected forest because of its special inhabitant: the Okapi. This animal is widely known because of its mix of zebra and giraffe characteristics and although it bears striped markings reminiscent of the zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe. Unfortunately, because of the politicial and economical situation in this part of the country, the reserve sees just a few visitors and several of its staff have been gone since poachers and others entered the reserve. Apart from the Okapi, many monkey species and the forest elephant live here as well as several local tribes who actually live in peace with the natural environment.
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The Virunga National Park is what Bwindi Impenetrable is to Uganda or the Volcanoes National Park to Rwanda: a large protected mountainous wilderness, mainly to preserve the last several hundreds or so of the Moutain Gorilla and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late seventies of the twentieth century. Chimpanzees, forest elephants, giraffe and even okapi can be found here, although there numbers have diminished in recent years because of the unstable political and economical situation. Still, travellers who can't get a permit in Rwanda or Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas, might be lucky to get one here as chances are better and it is cheaper, 'only' 350 USD compared to 500 USD in the other two countries. The main access point is from Rwanda to Goma but entries from Uganda might be possible as well, just check in advance regarding the visa and safety regulations during the time you will visit.
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Mount Nyiragongo is an active stratovolcano, located in the Virunga Mountains, just within the borders of the Virunga National Park. It's just about 20 kilometres north of Lake Kivu and the populous city of Goma and therefore is one of the 16 potential deadliest volcanoes in the world, which are on the Decade Volcano List(see below). The top of the volcano lies at 3,470 metres above sea level and the main crater is about 2 kilometres wide. The crater lake is one of the most voluminous in the world and before the major eruption of 1977 the depth was around 600 metres, although it's considerably less now. The volcano has another major eruption in 2002 (lava flowed down to the Goma airport and even into Rwanda!) and again has been active continuously since 2010, but this activity is limited to the crater area. It's a popular daytrip for hikers and can even be undertaken from nearby Rwanda.
The Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located in the east of the country near Lake Kivu and the border with Rwanda and together with the frontier are of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, forms one of the last remaining areas to preserve the mountain gorilla. The park is not as much visited as the other mountain gorilla parks and numbers may have declined more seriously here since civil war started. It also a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Also a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Salonga National Park protects the largest tropical rainforest reserve in Africa and is located in the Congo Basin. Animals here include species like bonobos (one of four human apes) and rare special species like salonga monkeys, Tshuapa red colobus Zaire peacocks, forest elephants, and African slender-snouted crocodiles. Although you are likely to see many animals here you won't see anywhere else in Africa, the park is not visited that often and safety forms the main problem for travellers these days.
Garamba National Park, located in Orientale Province, was established in 1938. One of Africa's oldest National parks, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Garamba is (or at least was) the home to the world's last known wild population of Northern White Rhinoceros. Due to poaching of the rhinos within the park, it was added to the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1996. The park is also well known for its African elephant domestication programme started in the 1960s, which managed to train tourist-rideable animals.
This annual celebration is held every January 4th. Also known as Martyr’s Day, the Commemoration of the Martyrs of Independence is held as a double event to remember the victims of violence against human rights and also the martyrs of justice.
Referred to as “Heroes’ Day,” this public holiday is celebrated annually on January 17. It commemorates the death of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s popular leader. It is one of the two festivals that commemorate Lumumba’s fight for human dignity in the region.
The Congo observes National Liberation Day every year on May 17. This is a public holiday, so all offices and most businesses are closed. It pays tribute to the efforts of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo rebel group who fought the government during the second war. MLC was led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, the son of Bemba Saolona, a Congolese billionaire. Street parades and cultural shows are held.
Independence Day is celebrated every June 30.
The world observes Parents’ Day every August 1, but in the Congo, it is considered a public holiday. Locals are enthusiastic about giving greeting cards and gifts to their family.
The Congo celebrates Youth Day on October 14. During this national day, different organizations host sporting events and other festivities for young people.
An observed as a national holiday, the country honors its military forces every November 17.
Unlike most Western countries, the Congo treats Christmas as a religious festival. It is less commercialized, so presents are uncommon. On Christmas Eve, churches stage musicals with at least five to six choir performances and nativity plays. Some communities enjoy festivities until dawn when Christmas Day services start at 9:00am Families typically prepare a feast at home, and for those who can afford it, pork and chicken are staples.
Apart from the higher parts of the country, the Democratic Republic of Congo has a tropical climate with generally hot and humid conditions. Rainfall is high throughout the country but there are some differences.
The northern parts of the country (for example Kisangani) has rain during every month, but with two season when rain is heaviest and more probable. These periods are March - April and September - November, though differences with other months are not that big. January is quite dry. Temperatures here are around 30º C during the day and 20 °C at night with no considerable montly variation.
In the south on the other hand there is single wet season from November to March (for example Lubumbashi). Here, May to September are almost completely dry. In the case of Lubumbashi temperatures are around 25 °C to 30 °C year round, but night can be very cool during the dry season, averaging only around 6 °C or 7 °C. From October to April, nights are considerably warmer, around 15 to 16 degrees on average. Of course, here this also has to do with altitude (1300 meters above sea level). Lower areas have warmer nights (and days).
Kinshasa has temperatures of around 30 °C during the day, 20 °C at night and there is a rainy season from November to April while June to September is almost completely dry as well.
A small coastal strip of the country has roughly the same climate as northern coastal areas of Angola, with warm weather but much less rain compared to places inland.
N'Djili International Airport (FIH) near the capital Kinshasa is the main international airport in the country. Hewa Bora Airways is one of the largest airlines in the country, flying to and from Brussels, Douala, Johannesburg, Lagos and Lomé. Air France flies between Kinshasa and Paris. Other destinations with several airlines are Brussels, Harare, Bujumbura Brazzaville, Kigali, Pointe-Noire, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Casablanca and Luanda.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies to Kinshasa from Amsterdam via Nairobi.
There is one line entering the DRC from Zambia. However, trains are very infrequent and unless you absolutely have to take the train for some reason, you should enter by road/air. The line reaches Lubumbashi and continuing to Kananga.
Decent paved roads connect the Katanga region with Zambia and Kinshasa down to Matadi and Angola. Roads enter the DRC from Uganda, Rwanda, & Burundi, although travelling far past the border is very difficult and parts of the Eastern DRC remain unsafe. There are ferries to take vehicles across the Congo River from Congo-Brazzaville and it may be possible to find a ferry from the CAR to the remote, unpaved roads of the northern DRC. Do not entirely trust your map. Many display an unfortunate wishful thinking. Roads are frequently washed out by rains, or were simply never built in the first place. Ask a local or a guide whether or not a route is passable.
Crossing to Rwanda is possible but only the one between Gisenyi and Goma is considered relatively safe at the moment. The one at the southern end of Lake Kiva, between Cyangugu and Bukavu is less safe, mainly on the DRC side. Crossings with Uganda are open but it's easier and safer to travel to Rwanda where it's just a short hop to the DRC and Goma.
Note that flights with any of the airlines of the DRC is amongst the most risky travelling business in the world. Although most planes of course will make it to the destination, accident rates are relatively high and all airlines are not welcome in Europe for example. That said, it is sometimes the only way and maybe even safer than travelling overland as this will impose risks of bandits or road accidents.
Hewa Bora Airways flies between Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Mbuji Mayi and Wimbi Dira Airways between Gbadolite, Gemena, Goma, Isiro, Kananga, Kindu, Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Kalemie Mbandaka and Mbuji-Mayi. Compagnie Africaine d'Aviation has an extensive network between Basankusu, Bumba, Goma, Kalemie, Kananga, Kikwit, Kinshasa, Kisangani, Lisala, Lodja, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka, Mbuji-Mayi and Tshikapa.
Train travel is possible, but really not recommended, as services are poor and slow. The main domestic railway runs from Lubumbashi to Ilebo, with a branch to Kalemie and Kindu via Kabalo and Kisangani. Another one runs from the capital Kinshasa to the port of Matadi.
Getting around by a rental car or your own car is possible, but roads are in an extremely poor conditions and many parts are muddy. Sometimes, bridges which use to cross rivers or other geographical features, are damaged. Only in an immediately around bigger cities the roads are in an acceptable condition. You can rent a car on a few airports and you need an international driving permit. Traffic drives on the right.
As smaller vehicles are unable to negotiate what remains of the roads, a lot of travel in the Congo is done by truck. If you go to a truck park, normally near the market, you should be able to find a truck driver to take you where ever you want, conflict zones aside. You travel on top of the load with a large number of others. If you pick a truck carrying bags of something soft like peanuts it can be quite comfortable. Beer trucks are not. If the trip takes days then comfort can be vital, especially if the truck goes all night. It helps to sit along the back, as the driver will not stop just because you want the toilet. The cost has to be negotiated so ask hotel staff first and try not to pay more than twice the local rate. Sometimes the inside seat is available. Food can be bought from the driver, though they normally stop at roadside stalls every 5/6 hours. Departure time are normally at the start or end of the day, though time is very flexible. It helps to make arrangements the day before. It is best to travel with a few others. Women should never ever travel alone. Some roads have major bandit problems so check carefully before going.
At army checkpoints locals are often hassled for bribes. Foreigners are normally left alone, but prepare some kind of bribe just in case. By the middle of the afternoon the soldiers can be drunk so be very careful and very polite. Never lose your temper.
Buses travel between most major cities and towns, but are crowded, slow, uncomfortable and unreliable.
Theoretically, there should be regular passenger services along the Congo River between Kinshasa, Kisangani and Ilebo. Services are not scheduled though and are very unreliable mainly due to shortages of petrol. Still, it might be one of the most memorable and even safest modes of transport, albeit the slowest as well. It is a great way to meet people, that's for sure.
Everyone travelling to the Congo for any purpose will need a visa. You can find the visa requirements on the Interior Ministry website (in French). However, getting a visa, like most government services, isn't straightforward and can be a messy process, with different officials telling you different stories in different places around the country and at different embassies/consulates worldwide. And then there's immigration officials trying to get more money out of you for their own gain.
If arriving by air (Kinshasa or Lubumbashi), you will need to have a visa before arrival and proof of yellow fever vaccination. Visas on arrival are not issued, or at least not commonly enough that you risk being placed on the next plane back. You should also have one passport-sized photograph, and evidence that you have sufficient funds to cover your stay, which includes evidence of a hotel reservation. The requirements and costs for visas vary from embassy to embassy, with some requiring a letter of invitation, others an onward air ticket, proof of funds for travel, and others nothing beyond an application.
As for arriving overland, you're best off if your home country doesn't have a DRC embassy (such as Australia & New Zealand) in which case you can apply for a visa in neighbouring countries without too much trouble. If your passport is from a country with a DRC embassy then embassies in neighbouring countries (Uganda, Rwanda, etc.) may tell you that you can only apply for a visa in your country of citizenship or residence.
See also Money Matters
The franc (CDF) is the currency of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is subdivided into 100 centimes.
There are no coins anymore; inflation has taken its toll.
Banknotes are issued in denominations of CDF50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000, 10,000 and 20,000. The only Congolese bank notes currently in circulation in most places are the 50, 100, 200 and 500 franc notes. They are almost worthless, as the highest valued banknote (the 500 franc note) is worth only about USD0.55.
US dollars in denominations above $2 are much preferred to francs. In contrast, US coins and $1 and $2 US dollar bills are considered worthless. If you pay in dollars, you will get change in francs. Though francs may sometimes come in bills so old they feel like fabric, US dollar bills must be crisp (less than 3 folds) and be printed in or after 2003, or they will not be accepted.
French is the lingua franca of the country and nearly everyone has a basic to moderate understanding of French. In Kinshasa and much of the Western DRC, nearly everyone is fluent in French with Kinshasa being the second or third largest French-speaking city in the world (depending on your source), although locals may be heard speaking Lingala amongst themselves. Much of the eastern and southern half speaks Swahili or related languages. The rest of the country speaks either Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, or a smaller tribal language. If you are travelling to the southwestern border near Angola you can find some Portuguese speakers.
Congo has one national dish: moambe. It's made of eight ingredients (moambe is the Lingala word for eight): palm nuts, chicken, fish, peanuts, rice, cassave leaves, bananas and hot pepper sauce.
There are more and more hotels in Kinshasa, with smaller hotels available in Gombe and Ngaliema area. In many small towns the local church or monastery may have beds available. You may also encounter the occasional decaying colonial hotel. Not all are safe.
Do not drink the local water. Bottled water seems to be cheap enough, but sometimes hard to find for a good price. The usual soft drinks (called sucré in Congo) such as Coke, Pepsi, Um Bongo and Mirinda are available in most places and are safe to drink. Local drinks like Vitalo are amazing. Traditional drinks like ginger are also common.
The local beer is based on rice, and tastes quite good. It comes in 75 cl bottles. Primus, Skol, Castel are the most common brands. Tembo, Doppel are the local dark beers.
In rural areas, you may try the local palm wine, an alcoholic beverage from the sap of the palm tree. It is tapped right from the tree, and begins fermenting immediately after collection. After two hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine of up to 4% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet. The wine may be allowed to ferment longer, up to a day, to yield a stronger, more sour and acidic taste, which some people prefer.
Beware of the local gin. Sometimes unscrupulous vendors mix in methanol which is toxic and can cause blindness. Some people believe that the methanol is a by product of regular fermentation. This is not the case as regular fermentation can not yield methanol in toxic amounts.
See also Travel Health
The Democratic Republic of Congo has very poor health care infrastructure/facilities. Outside the capital Kinshasa, there are very few hospitals or clinics for sick or injured travellers to visit. If you are travelling on one of the country's isolated, muddy roads or along the Congo River, you could be over a week away from the nearest clinic or hospital!
Proof that you had a yellow fever vaccination is required upon entering the Democratic Republic of Congo. You have to have a cholera stamp (prove of the fact that you don't have that desease) when entering overland.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Democratic Republic of Congo. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. When staying longer than 6 months, vaccination against meningitis might be recommended, depending on your contact with other people.
Like most African countries south of the Sahara, Malaria is prevalent in the country. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue is present in the country as well, mainly in and around urban areas and other places where there are many people.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
The Democratic Republic of the Congo remains one of the most underdeveloped countries in Africa and a significant portion of the DRC is not safe for any travel or sightseeing. In addition to active conflicts, the country has very limited health care and tourism facilities, even by African standards.
The regions of North & South Kivu have been in a state of continuous conflict since the early 1990s. In 2012, a new rebel faction - "M23" - formed and has since gone on to capture/attack many towns in the region, presenting the most serious crisis since the end of the Second Congo War in 2003. The faction has been accused of killing civilians and raping women. In November 2012, the rebels captured Goma - the largest city in the region - forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians and refugees to flee the city. They agreed to withdraw and hold peace talks (which remain unfruitful as of mid-2013), but still pose a great threat in the region. The North/South Kivu regions should be considered off limits by all visitors, except for aid/humanitarian workers who (and whose sponsor) are keenly aware of the risks.
The northeastern part of the country, just about everywhere north and east of the cities of Kisangani & Buma is unsafe due to active rebel groups responsible for low-level violence.
Those visiting for business, research, or international aid purposes should consult with their organization and seek expert guidance before planning a trip. Travellers visiting on their own should consult the advice of your embassy for any travel to the DRC aside from the Kinshasa and Bas-Congo area (crime is a very serious problem in Kinshasa) and the vicinity of Lubumbashi.
Congolese planes crash with depressing regularity, with eight recorded crashes in 2007 alone. Despite this, the risks of air travel remain on par with travel by road, barge, or rail. The notorious Hewa Bora airlines has gone out of business and the creation of a handful of new airlines between 2010 and 2012 should lead to improvement in the safety of air travel in the DRC. Avoid at all costs, old Soviet aircraft that are often chartered to carry cargo and perhaps a passenger or two and stick with the commercial airlines operating newer aircraft (listed above under "Get around/By plane"). If you are still fearful of getting on a Congolese plane and aren't as concerned about cost, you can try flying with a foreign carrier such as Kenyan Airways (which flies to Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, & Kisangani) or Ethiopian (Kinshasha, Lubumbashi). Just be sure to check the visa requirements to transit.
Travel by river boat or barge remains somewhat risky, although safer than by road. Overcrowded barges have sunk and aging boats have capsized travelling along the Congo River, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Before catching a ride, take a look at the vessel you will be boarding and if you don't feel safe, it is better to wait for the next boat, even if you must wait several days. Most of the country's rail network is in disrepair, with little maintenance carried out since the Belgians left. A few derailings have occurred, resulting in large numbers of casualties. Trains in the DRC are also overloaded, don't even think about joining the locals riding on the roof!
Crime is a serious problem across much of the country. During the waning years of Mobutu's rule, Kinshasa had one of the highest murder rates in the world and travel to Kinshasa was comparable to Baghdad during the Iraq War! While violence has subsided considerably, Kinshasa remains a high crime city (comparable to Lagos or Abidjan). Keep anything that can be perceived as valuable by a Congolese out of sight when in vehicles, as smash-and-grab crime at intersections occurs. Markets in larger cities are rife with pickpockets. Keep in mind that the DRC remains among the 3-4 poorest countries in Africa and compared to the locals, every white person is perceived as rich. Be vigilant of thieves in public places. If travelling in remote areas, smaller villages are usually safer than larger ones. Hotel rooms outside the biggest cities often don't have adequate safety (like flimsy locks on doors or ground-level windows that don't lock or have curtains).
Taking photos in public can be cause for suspicion. By some accounts, an official permit is needed to take photos in the DRC. Actually they will likely be difficult or impossible to find or obtain. Do not photograph anything that can be perceived as a national security threat, such as bridges, roadblocks, border crossings, and government buildings.
See also International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is: 243.
To make an international call from the Democratic Rupublic of the Congo, the code is: 00
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