Conceptual framework of the research


Isolation is a contested and undertheorized concept, lacking sufficient ethnographic description and theoretical understanding. From that point, we decided to explore, describe, and understand isolation by applying a comparative perspective and aiming to bring new insights from diverse examples in Croatia and Slovenia. We investigate isolation by asking what it is like to live in isolation. The goal is to understand isolation as a multidimensional phenomenon, individually and collectively experienced, with no time or space, generational or ideological limits. We find isolation as part of our lives. As the first part of our research strategy, we chose to BE in that space. We observed. We decided to feel, watch, photograph, walk, sit, listen, smell, and experience the cold, heat, noise, silence, smell, space, ruination and devastation, emptiness and fullness.

Figure 1: “Sajmište” is the largest container settlement in Petrinja (March 2023, photo credit: Lana Peternel).

The second part of our research involved a direct intention to DO something for the people living in isolation. We participated. In that context, we joined the Red Cross in Petrinja, Čabar, and Ozalj. We tried to capture fragments of everyday life, giving lectures and workshops in schools, participating in events, activities, providing humanitarian aid, and even for a short period of time we cooked in a public kitchen. In this way, we experienced what it is like to wait for a public transport, to depend on a single small shop to be opened on an island, to rely on others’ help or to quote Fassin, to rely on people’s hearts, to have enough for yourself, to be satisfied with almost nothing to eat, or to live in silence. Using an ethnographic approach, we try to extract the core of the subject of isolation.

However, we RESONATE with current circumstances that shaped and expanded our focus due to devastating events in the last few months in Croatia and Slovenia. Natural disasters like floods and storms hit the area that we also find crucial for our further investigation. Moreover, through the research, we have established new scientific collaborations not only within our two countries, but also with others such as Great Britain, Latvia, Norway, Ukraine, Kosovo and Iceland. Our focus takes into account the new Schengen border and circumstances around the bordering system that will influence new patterns of isolation. Our concept will be completed when all these themes become the context of the articles and conference presentations.

Figure 2: The image shows two faces of post-earthquake Petrinja: a ruined house on the right and a container-like structure on the left (March 2023, photo credit: Dan Podjed).

From that point, we ask what it is like to live in isolation. The answers may range from fulfilling, if you live in the kind of isolation you have chosen for yourself, to abandoned, if you live in a remote place with neglected infrastructure, demographically devastated with outmigration, economically hit by poverty, devoid of essential constructive elements, as Dace Dzenovska defined emptiness as an analytical phenomenon.

However, isolation as a contexted phenomenon, experienced on numerous levels, is characterized by influences of different kinds of crises. Empty family homes and school buildings, devastated factories, shops, railway or bus stations, cafes, restaurants, and cooperative buildings indicate the social and cultural destruction of everyday life. Therefore, emptiness signifies particular kinds of isolation. However, isolation, no matter how denoted symbolic positive or negative meanings, inevitably points to the consequences of social, economic, political, climate or demographic crises.

In other words, the meaning of isolation speaks of societal, economic, and political aspirations, strategies, consequences, and finally failures. Therefore, the significance of isolation is deeply disturbing, as it is often viewed through the lens of losing visions of development, progress, and gain. Isolation is a consequence of socioeconomic ruination and environmental degradation while serving as a foundation for intentional individual growth and a prosperous life on a personal level. Isolation as a phenomenon represents a societal, economic, and cultural loss on a broader scale. Thus, we believe that isolation is merely a personal gain for an individual or a smaller community, which paradoxically resonates with the loss of overall societal positive development, coexistence, tolerance, and numerous opportunities. Therefore, when we describe isolation and discuss it as an instrument for relational comparison, it moves from description to generalization, intertwining with diverse crises.

Who is isolated? For anthropologists, isolation is primarily defined by people who live in places where they struggle to obtain basic life necessities. Isolated people cannot withdraw money from ATMs, cannot chat with neighbours, passers-by, or family members, need to pay extremely expensive taxi rides instead of public transport to reach a hospital or school, their homes no longer exist as safe spaces, and their memories, identities, and customs are disappearing. In these cases, the focus in exploring isolation is fragmented towards individuals, their experiences, and the context of personal or societal crises as their fundamental triggers.

Figure 3: The image shows a volunteer of the Red Cross Čabar with a lunch from the Public kitchen (March 2023, photo credit: Lana Peternel).

The crises we face profoundly transform our communities from connected to disconnected and vice versa. The changes are multidimensional on individual, societal, and spatial levels. Crises penetrate into one another, turning our everyday lives into years and decades of coping and developing innovative “exits” and strategies. While there are communities that find a “way out of the crisis,” empty and isolated areas, as well as all vulnerable isolated communities are falling deeper.

Figure 4: Self-help messages taped to a container wall in “Sajmište” (March 2023, photo credit: Lana Peternel).

How can we combat isolation caused by environmental degradation, climate change, natural disasters, fires, floods, earthquakes, and pandemics in the next decades when isolation spreads more profoundly? In the past, people fled from crises, simply outmigrating; especially when it comes to islands or mountain areas of Croatia and Slovenia. Nowadays, when a crisis emerges at the same time, isolated places are required, like a desirable hiding place on an island.

And it is true, isolation is what is considered desirable due to a unique quality of life that also implies the longing to be “left in peace and alone”. Unfortunately, we as individuals and communities experience global social, economic, climate, and demographic catastrophes no matter how remote we build our lives. The crises have turned many naturally beautiful places into devastated and forgotten spaces.

Nevertheless, the paradox of empty and isolated spaces during a crisis is simultaneously frightening and encouraging. It is frightening due to crises becoming increasingly strong indicators of decline and disappearance, yet encouraging because individuals and smaller communities find ways and courage to face them. For this reason, we do not need to search long for interlocutors who choose a life in an isolated yet vibrant place, and who build communities more resilient to crises. Whether you explore in Croatia or Slovenia, you will always find reasons to lose yourself for a while, for instance in Robidišče, Čabar, or Žirje – empty, abandoned, isolated places that will fill you with their energy and the promise of a new meaning of life you might want, perhaps even decide, to make your home in. However, living and working in such places is challenging, no matter how close they might be to paradise-like beaches or mountain peaks.

However, exploring isolation because of crisis leads us to the realization that these two concepts are deeply intertwined. In Croatia and Slovenia, after joining the European Union, there were assumptions that the negative impact of the crisis would be minimalised by the mutual state agreements and support, having in mind all the transformational processes and common historical background. However, in Croatia, after the earthquake in Petrinja in Banija, living conditions evidence how isolation can be hard to face and avoid. For two and a half years people in Petrinja and Bania are still living in containers.

Figure 5: The New Life Centre in Petrinja is designed of 168 containers (March 2023, photo credit: Dan Podjed).

Temporary accommodation after catastrophe turned into living and working in small containers for years and for several thousand people. The earthquake revealed the hidden side of multiple crises, showing literally what isolated life looks like in a container, in a container settlement, or beside a house destroyed by the earthquake. Containers are suitable for dwelling, for instance as temporary shelters and essential housing in refugee camps. Only in short-terms. Simultaneously, life in containers was portrayed in the media as a hedonistic paradise. For example, many want to spend their vacations in luxury containers – so-called “mobile glam houses” – placed in tourist resorts by the sea, rivers, or mountains. However, the earthquake in Banija revealed that the crisis in Croatia has lasted for more than thirty years and pointed to “structural processes beyond the control” of today’s actors (Leivestad and Markkula 2021: 3) while uncovering the relationships and interests of political authorities and capital (Dzenovska and Knight 2020).

In fact, when life in the container settlement in Petrinja is juxtaposed with life in Gorski Kotar, Robidišče, Žirje, and all the locations we have researched so far, it can be said to be an essential example of “isolation and state relation.”

Can we talk about the particular way of isolation in Croatia or Slovenia that does not exist elsewhere? Imagine being born and raised in cities celebrated for its unique beauty and history, like Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast, often pictured as the “Adriatic Pearl.” From that point, imagine trying to live, work, and establish a family in Dubrovnik, where prices of real estate, apartments, houses, flats etc. reach staggering heights. These prices of the square metres are comparable to the most expensive cities in Europe like Paris, Florence, or London. In Dubrovnik, apart from the tourist sector, finding a job in the academic field is quite challenging. You find that you are the one and only, remote from the academic institutions and vibrant research labs and departments. This is not a type of isolation in empty, rural spaces; quite the contrary, it is isolation amidst the bustling streets of a magical Mediterranean city. However, this is isolation from the network of collaborators. In Dubrovnik, young people often struggle to buy their own homes or wait for job opportunities to secure a loan for extremely expensive apartments. Young families opt for separated lives, daily commutes, outmigration, and maritime jobs, and unfortunately, they frequently become discouraged from pursuing a life under these circumstances in Dubrovnik. Paradoxically, Croatia promotes living, visiting, and being in Dubrovnik as a unique experience. In this kind of isolation it is almost impossible to have equal opportunities, and leaving beautiful tourist places is often the only option.

Figure 6: An individual container next to a ruined house in Banija region (March 2023, photo credit: Lana Peternel).

State-of-the-art in the fields of research and survey of the relevant literature

The adjective “isolated” means “standing detached from others of its kind.” In the 18th century, the word was transferred into English from French isolé “isolated”, from Italian isolato, and from Latin insulatus“made into an island,” and insula “island.” Isolation and islands have been important concepts in anthropology since its beginnings in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, isolated islands, communities, and people defined the birth of anthropology (Kottak 2017; Bille et al. 2010). From the beginning of the discipline, the cultural patterns of isolated communities have been analyzed to better understand the social and cultural practices of non-isolated individuals, groups and societies (Manners 1965; Geertz 1983; Kociatkiewicz & Kostera 1999; Eriksen 2001; Horst & Miller 2006; Dawdy 2010; Argenti 2019). From kinship, social structures, economic practices, and mythology to digital communication or social networks, isolated communities and individuals reflected the globalization processes (Ma 2020; Argenti 2019; Royle 2007; Baldacchino 2006, 2008; Gössling and Wall 2007). Anthropologists also tried to explain people’s responses to isolation in empty urban and rural spaces, characterized either by the negative experience of loneliness and insularity or by positive inspiration and creative engagement (Carsten 2007; Sassen 2005; Petrović et al. 2020). From an anthropological perspective, emptiness is often defined as desolation or lack of life and activity in space (Munn 1996). Moreover, it is also a rich source of meanings associated with physical isolation and a distinct sense of withdrawal (Driessen 2018; Gupta 2018; Dzenovska 2011; Dzenovska & De Genova 2018). Thus, a step beyond the state-of-the-art that will be taken in this project is to examine notions of isolation within and between isolated communities in different cultural, historical, and sociopolitical contexts, and to ask what advantages and disadvantages isolation has or has historically had.

Anthropological research on isolation shows that understanding isolated people and communities requires a detailed ethnographic project that re-examines everyday practices, values, and notions of time, place, and identity, as well as people’s own biases and experiences (Burawoy & Verdery 1999; Kottak 2017; Dzenovska & De Genova 2018). From an anthropological perspective, isolation is an amalgamation of people and places that avoids analytically separating their mutual engagement for a singular outcome (Drazin 2018). Social science studies have confirmed that isolation is related to mental health, poverty, inequality, marginalisation, and shame due to failure to meet personal expectations (Tilki et al. 2009; Leavey et al. 2007). From this perspective, isolation is not about emptiness and seclusion. Rather, it is related to individual perceptions of belonging and passage of time (see Phillipson et al. 2001; Askham et al. 2006). However, people facing political isolation in post-conflict areas (Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia, etc.) may witness abuses of social structures that can alter and realign prevailing perspectives on hidden political practices (Gelo 2003; Navaro-Yashin 2009; Fowles 2010; Azoulay 2013; Bloch & Parry 1982). This projects puts a special attention on actual islands in the Adriatic and isolated areas in the Alps and other regions. The isolated islands of the Croatian Eastern Adriatic have been thoroughly studied by Pavao Rudan and his collaborators, who shared their knowledge with Slovenian anthropologists (three of them included in the project team) focusing on isolated Alpine villagers and remote communities (Rudan et al. 2002; Rudan 2006; Cevc 2006; Ledinek Lozej 2013, 2016; Kozorog 2013; Simonič 2017). Their studies have confirmed that the types of isolation differ at interpersonal and community levels. However, according to the criteria of defining non-isolated lifestyle, a prosperous life in isolation often requires much more sacrifice than in other parts of Slovenia or Croatia. For example, a successful private entrepreneurship in isolated, depopulated areas requires an uneven distribution of individual investment and social and political care (Thrift 2000; Petrović et al. 2020). Various studies also show that the economic prosperity in isolation occurs because of extraordinary sacrifice of comforts and conveniences (Caruth 1996; Howes 1991; Navaro-Yasin 2009).

In the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the emptiness and potential revitalization of isolated spaces are often misunderstood and represented by extreme examples and stereotypes. A positive stereotypical example is a successful individual, usually a better educated man, whose entrepreneurial initiative became a common case of a successful revitalization strategy. At the same time, a negative stereotypical story highlights an elderly woman living alone in an empty village. Both presented stereotypes consequently demonstrate feminization and senilization of isolated and rural areas due to the migration patterns (Dzenovska 2020; Dugački et al. 2021). The range of different interpretations of isolation or revitalization is constructed as an exclusively individual choice or a transitional phenomenon where there is no capacity for change, with a lack of focus on the responsibility of political elites in the transition period from socialism to capitalism (Castells 2017; Kallis 2011). Therefore, to better understand what it means to be isolated, it is crucial to locate and compare the different experiences of individual isolation and to develop a new anthropological approach for the analysis.

Theoretical background, problem identification and objective of the proposed research

The project focuses on isolation in its actual and physical sense and compares it with a symbolic and social component of the term (Geertz 1983). It seeks to identify isolated people and communities and examine their understanding of isolation, insularity, and emptiness as a multidimensional and changing phenomenon in a pre- and post-pandemic context. As Adam Drazin (Advisory Bord member) asserts, isolation is not a stable construction of time, place, and body. Instead, it should be understood as a cultural understanding of change in relation to notions of belonging (2018: 1). According to anthropological research, analysis of isolation should take into account political, social and spatial contexts, personal destinies, cultural heritage, and human activities leading to different practices and appropriation of space (Fontein 2011; Low 2000, 2009, 2014). Therefore, this project uses ethnography to explore what it means to be isolated in a (post)pandemic period and what it meant to be isolated in the past.

In addition to isolation, there are some basic concepts that we want to use in the project. One is insularity, which defines separation from other communities (Simonič 2017). The other is emptiness, which often describes depopulated urban and rural areas created by political, economic, and social changes that significantly alter population and spatial structures (Dzenovska 2018, 2020; Woolfson 2010). All these terms – isolation, insularity, emptiness, loneliness, solitude, etc. – are actually ambiguous. In some contexts, isolation negatively impacts demographic and spatial changes that are increasingly evident in social and cultural practices in the current global environmental and health crises. On the other hand, in times of digitalization and hyperconsumption, people have often witnessed information overload and, more than in the past, have begun to search for a meaningful life in isolated spaces in order to identify new values and find better prospects for themselves.

Due to the multiplicity of meanings, the phenomenon of isolation is in this project analysed and compared from the following perspectives: 1. historical and demographic perspective (archival research; census data; secondary literature and resources related to selected larger geographical areas); 2. current social and cultural perspective (ethnography in selected isolated sites); 3. individual perspective (in-depth interviews with isolated people in different areas, places and communities).

The project is based on three research axes: 1. isolated social spaces (post-industrial areas, suburban spaces; transitional settlements, for example military bases on the border between Slovenia and Croatia); 2. empty and abandoned cultural landscapes (life in barely populated mountain areas or on a remote island, in landscapes on the Slovenian-Croatian border); 3. development of new possible connections (creation of new platforms for (re)establishing connections between isolated communities based on ethnographic research with the aim of presenting isolation as a new opportunity).

Problem identification

The problem we want to address is understanding isolation as an indicator of past, present and future cultural and social change. The anthropological literature offers an understanding of isolation, but today, in the (post)pandemic era, the concept takes on new levels of meaning and a new potential for dialectical thinking. Thus, the problem of isolation needs to be redefined in terms of time and space, focusing on personal experiences, values, and identity. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting isolation has dramatically affected people’s physical and mental health, sense of security, belonging, and their confidence. In addition, frustration with the economy’s closure has created uncertainty, which particularly affected the elderly, entrepreneurs, and employees in both the private and public sectors. Notwithstanding the generally positive economic development and prosperity of Croatian and Slovenian societies, isolated and demographically empty spaces are a problematic social reality and a hidden side of national progress (Nared 2020; Akrap & Ivanda 2019).

The two neighbouring countries share a common historical experience and sociocultural background, but both preserve differences in economic, geographic, and demographic trends.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Croatia was hit by two strong earthquakes in Petrinja and Zagreb (two fieldwork sites in this project) that further endangered and isolated people, while Slovenia experienced devastated floods in summer 2023. Earthquakes, floods, Covid-19, and isolation undermined policies of rapid social prosperity, security, and advancement according to EU development criteria. Therefore, the issue of isolation in the “new normal” will be addressed during the research project, which will explore the experiences of isolated people and communities in remote, marginal, and contested areas of Slovenia and Croatia. Ethnographic studies will reveal new types of insularity and emptiness and explain how small communities and individuals perceive global trends of being connected and deal with their own isolation.

Objectives of the research

The main goal is to understand what it means to be isolated in different times, places and situations in two countries, Slovenia and Croatia. The specific objectives of the project are to:

1. Identify and compare the experiences of isolation. We ask how isolation emerges and persists among people and in small communities in pre- and post-pandemic times. To this end, we will determine the characteristics of isolated communities throughout history and examine when isolation becomes an opportunity.

2. Determine the different values and attitudes within and between isolated communities in different cultural, historical and socio-political contexts. We ask what advantages and disadvantages isolation has, could have in the future or has had in the past. To this end, we will identify the importance of values, well-being, quality of life, and other conditions specific to different regions, historical backgrounds, and political systems.

3. Identify the types of isolation. What types of isolation exist in Slovenia and Croatia? What types of isolation existed in the past and could occur in the future? By presenting the new theoretical and empirical findings obtained in the project, we will improve our understanding of the multi-faceted nature of isolation from different perspectives in various socio-political and economic contexts.

4. Prepare recommendations for people- and community-centered development. In Slovenia and Croatia, we plan to develop new models of bottom-up policy solutions and combine them with existing practices acquired in isolated communities. The knowledge gained in this project will create a new level of sensitivity in relation to socially marginalized and excluded communities and individuals.

5. Dissemination of knowledge and findings. We will present new findings generated by the project to researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the general public (scientific and media presentations, podcast, exhibition, etc.) a) to promote understanding of the multi-faceted nature of isolation, b) to support the implementation of new mechanisms and policies to ensure a quality life in isolation, and c) to prepare guidelines for reconnecting isolated communities and individuals.

Research question

The main question that we aim to inquire by ethnographic and archival research is what it means to be isolated. With this aim in mind we will determine the characteristics of isolated communities in Slovenia and Croatia in the past, present and future. Taking a step beyond the state-of-the-art will require  new endeavours to stress how people in isolated communities understand, feel or sense their environment and belongings, how they perceive their isolation, how they create new values and meaning in their particular situations, and how they imagine their future. By rethinking the traditional anthropological concept of isolation, we will research in geographically isolated areas (on islands and in abandoned rural areas) and compare them with isolated spaces in urban areas.

Research topics

In our research, we will highlight issues related to isolation and connectedness in urban and rural settings, in cities and villages, and also in larger areas (Figure 1). We will examine how people build a sense of community and seclusion and how they isolate themselves due to external and internal factors. We will examine their daily routines, such as when they work or study and when they rest or sleep. We will try to understand how they communicate, work, and socialise in isolation. We will also examine their opportunities for leisure and physical activity in isolation and compare this to everyday habits, routines, and practices in more connected communities. The three main themes we will focus on in our work programme are: 1. (dis)temporality (perceptions of time in isolation), 2. (dis)placement perceptions of physical isolation), and 3. (dis)connectedness (perceptions of social isolation). Since we will discuss the themes in different locations, we will be able to make a comparative analysis of the themes in relation to (dis)temporality, (dis)placement, and (dis)connectedness in everyday life. In doing so, we will understand when and how the transition to isolation occurs and how people deal with loneliness, emptiness and social distance in different socio-cultural contexts and places in two countries, namely Slovenia and Croatia. In addition to the selected places (see Research locations below) where we will conduct a comparative study of isolated communities, we decided to focus also on isolated individuals.


In our research, we will apply different types of ethnographic research, which will be tailored to different communities or individuals and their specific needs. “To be or not to be there” (Podjed & Muršič 2021) will be thus the central question which will be used to pick the right approach for staying in touch with people for an extended period of time. 

Ethnographic protocol for the first year

It is important to emphasize that insights from the conversation will be used solely for scientific purposes, and names and surnames will not be mentioned anywhere.

The protocol consists of nine parts:
PART ONE: Introduction to the interviewee; General information about the interviewee;
PART TWO: Interview/Conversation about the difficulties and challenges the interviewee faces, as well as who and what helps him/her to cope with a life in isolation;
PART THREE: Capture photographs or videos of the locations, villages, areas where the interview/ research is conducted.
PART FOUR: Discuss the role of different state and local policies during this time, as well as reflecting on how things were before.
PART FIVE: Envision the future if it is possible and appropriate
PART SIX: Record some questions posed by the interviewee themselves? Write a sentence about what being isolated means to the interviewee.
PART SEVEN: Photograph documents or personal archives that are significant to the construction of the story.
PART EIGHT: Maintain field notes and discuss them with colleagues.
How would you describe or introduce yourself? (everything is relevant: religion, nationality, language, regional affiliation, type of subcultural identity, etc.)
If someone asked you who you were, besides your name and surname, what else would you say?
What do you do for a living? Did you receive education related to your profession?
What does your daily life look like, on an average day?
When and why did you decide for this way of life?
Generally, is your life as you expected it to be?
How is your health? What is it like to be sick?
How do you feel and sense isolation?
How important is family in your life? Does your family help you in difficult situations? How and in what ways?
What do you miss the most? And what do you have the most of?
Do you have a best friend? Are you someone’s best friend? An experience that confirms that someone is your best friend or that you are someone’s best friend?
Describe the most challenging (or one of) experiences in your life.
Describe the happiest (or one of) experiences in your life.
How does your ideal way of spending leisure time look like? And the worst?
How important are material things for a good life? According to you, what is the most important thing a person must possess to have a good life? What do you consider luxury, and what is a necessity?
What is the most valuable thing in life? Could you live with less than you have now?
Have you ever had to give up something? How did you feel?
Do you think about life outside your current place of residence, meaning moving? What is your ideal place, city, country to live in? How stressful do you think moving away is, or is it more difficult to stay and live here? Why? The longest period spent away from your current place of residence, experiences with moving.
What is the ideal social or political environment in which you want to live?
Describe your best travel experience (preferably in the country you want to go to). What attracted you to it?
What does spirituality mean to you? How important is spirituality in your life? Have you ever had a spiritual/religious experience? Would you like to?
What kind of person needs to be to have a good life? Why?

In field notes, describe difficulties and challenges in a couple of sentences.

Describe the difficulties/challenges faced during the pandemic? (if needed, sub-question: financial, organizational)
The same question can be posed before or after the pandemic?

Describe various coping strategies.

Describe what made dealing with the isolation situation easier? (do not read, but pay attention to aspects like old/new social networks – both domestically and internationally, diversification of activities, technology, government support, local assistance, previous experiences like the 2008 crisis, financial planning, favorable loans, membership in associations or unions)
Describe if there were unforeseen factors that made the situation easier/harder for you? (do not read, but pay attention to aspects like misinformation, poor communication, corruption)

Describe how isolated individuals perceive the role of the state and its measures.

How do you think politicians (or the government) perceive your problems? Are there differences among them?
What do you think should be the role of the state towards people living in such remote areas?
Specifically, if you received government assistance, what did it entail? What are your thoughts on it? What was your experience with it (simplicity/complexity of the procedure)? Was it essential for you?
What other forms of support do you think the government should provide? (do not read, but pay attention to aspects like debt forgiveness, reduction of contributions, favorable loans, tax incentives, subsidies, enabling employment)
What do you expect from the European Union in the context of recovery for isolated areas?
Have you had the opportunity to propose measures for recovery yourself? If not, what suggestions would you have for them?

Describe how isolated individuals envision the future.

In general, how do you think these areas will look in the future?
In general, will society change, and if so, how?
Do you have anything to add that would help us understand the challenges that people living in isolation face and the ways they cope with them, with a particular focus on the varying role of the state?
Describe disappearance and emergence?



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