Michael's Dispatches

Some Photos and Captions


22 July 2009
Filed from Sangin, Afghanistan

(This dispatch is from Ghor Province, though I am now with British forces down south.)

Lithuanian soldier on Swedish C-130 from Kabul to Kandahar and finally to Chaghcharan.   On his left are Filipino workers.  Filipinos are like birds; the only place that an American has stepped that a Filipino hasn’t is the moon.  Yesterday was a special anniversary for space travel: man first landed on the moon.  I watched the launch from our family boat when I was five years-old.  Apollo 11 was bright, and loud.  Many people think that the Russians also walked on the moon, but this is untrue.

The Swedish C-130 landed at Chaghcharan “airport.”  Landmines still wait in ambush in the fields around the airstrip, and in fact a legacy mine (previous war) was found just about three feet off the road—just a minute from the base—while I was there.  The mine has been next to the base for about five years and apparently nobody stepped on it.  When soldiers say to you, “Sir, please don’t step off the road,” they mean “DON’T STEP OFF THE ROAD!”  The director of the local hospital told me that mines strike about one person per month in this area.

Croatian soldiers are in Chaghcharan.  Afghanistan is more 'international' than the Frankfurt (am Main) international airport.

Downtown Chaghcharan.

There are more villages in Afghanistan than stars in this photo.  Look closely and see the meteor track in the upper center.

This meteor is easier to see.  The camera captured about ten photos of meteors in maybe forty-five minutes.

For every meteor caught by the camera, at least a dozen more could be seen streaking over.

Another meteor.

An Italian helicopter flew in from Herat and broke down, so the crew was stuck in Chaghcharan for several days.   Lithuanian soldiers guarded the Italian helicopter day and night until the Italians got it fixed and flew away.  In the photo above and below, Lithuanians prepare for guard duty under the glow of the Milky Way.

I thought people at home would want to see this, so I fetched the camera—bought by readers—and made some shots.  These images were made with a Canon Mark II 5d, which has turned out to be superior in many ways to the Mark III 1ds.

The Mark II 5d, with a 50mm f1.2, pulls in a lot of light.

Lithuanian soldiers before mission to village.

Sangow Bar Village.

At first many of the Lithuanian soldiers were standoffish, apparently concerned that a writer would come out and slam them just for the sake of slamming.  Despite the reticence, they were always polite and professional.  I often get similar reactions with U.S. and British forces.  They might be reluctant to talk in front of writers, but 99% are professional about it, and nearly always polite.  (On rare occasions they are impolite.)  After some time the Brits and Americans relax, and the same was true with Lithuanians, Croatians and Ukrainians.  One Ukrainian officer didn’t even want me to go on mission wherein they were teaching Afghans how to use Word and Excel software.  Later he invited me to Ukraine.  Some of the Ukrainians and Lithuanians fought here during the Soviet war, but they seem to like the Afghans.  The Ukraine officer said that there are 50,000 Afghans living in Ukraine, and they are good people and there are no problems.

Some of the Lithuanians want to go down south and join American forces in the fight.  They know they will take losses, but they also lament that this is a perfect time to improve the Lithuanian Army by getting out with our people and fighting.

The base is off to the right, and partially in this photo.  All these homes are new and were built here because the base came up.  Some of the people moved closer to the base for protection, while others came for jobs.

Chaghcharan runway is visible on the upper left.

Croatians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians came to a school to put up a basketball court.  The Lithuanians in particular have some kind of basketball mania.   Like NASCAR in North Carolina.  They’ll talk your ear off about basketball.

Boy at the school.  There were two teachers for 140 students.  One teacher told me she has ten children and she taught all ten how to read Dari.  The other teacher was her fifteen-year-old daughter, who actually spoke some English.  Many of the kids were learning English.

This Ukrainian officer was constantly interacting with Afghan adults and kids.

Front gate at a computer learning center and warehouse in Chaghcharan.

Two Ukrainian officers were teaching Word and Excel downtown.  One student, the one standing in the back with the blue vest, talked with me for about thirty minutes.  He asked about the foods we eat in America.  “Do you eat the pig?”  “Do you eat the cow?”  “The chicken?”  Finally, he asked if I hate Muslims.  I looked at him like he was crazy and he laughed with embarrassment and apologized for the question.   I told him honestly that I like most Afghans.

There is something about Afghans that resonates with Americans.  They value independence and personal strength, and honor is a part of their society.  There is a substantial reservoir of expats—many are Brits or Americans who have lived here for years on end.  Not on bases, but downtown in many parts of Afghanistan.  Despite my personal negativity that we are losing the war, one doesn’t have to look far for sparkles of hope.  Losing doesn’t mean lost.  Difficult does not mean impossible.

On the 6th of July, the Lithuanians celebrated their 'State Day.'  A Romanian policeman working here asked one Lithuanian soldier, 'I don’t mean to be impolite, but how many Independence Days does Lithuania have?'  Both the Romanian and I were surprised that Lithuanians have two Independence Days, though one is called 'State Day.'

Lithuanians are proud of their history but there have been some very dark times.  They remind me of the Polish—I lived in Poland for about two years—freedom loving, stubborn, and independence-minded.  Most of them hated Soviet occupation and dreamed of joining the west.  The Lithuanians now say the long struggle to freedom was worth the heavy price.

The pagan Lithuanians fought off the Christian Jihad, commonly known as 'Crusade.'  The words 'pagan' and 'infidel,' 'jihad' and 'crusade,' are mostly synonymous.  More interesting still, many people believe that the Pashtuns, from which most of the Taliban derive, are actually decended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Some Taliban actually have Jewish names.  There is a Jewish cemetary in Ghor Province.  Some Jews say there were two Jerusalems, and that 'Northern Jerusalem' was in fact Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, but the Jews there were mostly murdered and scattered over the last century, this time not by Muslims but others, including those who shipped them to Siberia.

When I visited Jerusalem earlier this year, the irony was too heavy to lift.  Three major religions collide head-on in the Holy Land.  Jerusalem is not the only Thunderdome; there are others.  For instance, India has a place called Ayodha, which is sacred to the Hindus, and holy to the Muslims, too, and so the Indian Hindus and Muslims have murdered each other in large numbers for tiny speck of common holy land.

The Lithuanians had been sort of bragging about an American soldier who beat them in a basketball competition.  They couldn’t believe that a relatively short American woman, an American soldier, had beaten these tall soldiers so handily, and so they were talking about her for many days.  The Lithuanian commander gave her an award in front of all the soldiers, who cheered her on, and one Lithuanian ask her to come to Lithuania to join the national team.  I wanted to say, 'You go little Sister!'

The Lithuanians are proud to say that Ghor Province is poppy free.

Audience at talent show on base.

The Lithuanians actually have a sauna on base.

Prepping for a night mission.

The Crusaders beat the Pagans, and so now Lithuania is strongly Catholic.  The priest gives a blessing before the mission.

No Milky Way tonight.

Soldiers are blessed and ready to roll.

The roads can be more treacherous than any enemy in Ghor Province.

The CamelBak water bladders replace canteens and our people have been using them for years.  Some Lithuanians have started using CamelBaks, and I have a couple.  The biggest threat to Brits and Americans down south are bombs, but heat is also a major threat and is putting people down.  Especially so given that most of Afghanistan is at least 5,000 feet above sea level.  Combine altitude with heat and it can be difficult to drink enough water.  When soldiers and Marines go down from the heat, the medics will pull down the casualty’s trousers and roll him over and stick a thermometer in his rump, right there in front of everybody.  Needless to say, in addition to getting a temperature reading, this gives incentive for people to drink more water.  Nothing is sacred out here.  I heard a story about a commander who, during a long firefight without a break, finally decided that enough was enough and right there in front of his Marines dropped his drawers and squatted to relieve himself, then pulled up his drawers and got back into the fight.

Lithuanian and Croatian soldiers spent three hours walking around handing out 'propaganda.'  In American patois, 'propaganda' has a negative connotation but it’s important for the military to disseminate its message.  This man squatted for about 10 minutes reading (his lips were moving).  One boy ran up to me to say in English that his photo had been in another such flier.  He was very proud to have his photo published, and whereas I’ve seen people disregard such fliers in some places, here the people seemed to value them.  One man zoomed in with a child on a motorbike and smiled, asking for a flier, which he then started to read.  Whoever is making these fliers seems to be doing a good job.

The local radio station.  Imagine the advertisement:  'This is WAFG, coming at you with 100 milliwatts of power!'

I recognized some of the kids from school.  This girl was at the school some days back and was intent on getting her photo made.  A lot of Afghan kids enjoy throwing a few English words at you.  Would be a great thing to have 10,000 English teachers over here.

This is the base at Chaghcharan where our folks, Lithuanians, Croatians, Ukrainians and others live.  Including some Filipino workers, of course.  One Filipina is from Mindanao, and I said that I just came from her island which made her happy.

They built this catwalk because during the wet season, Afghan mud is horrendous.

At night, it’s important to carry a light because the bases are very dark—but the camera makes it look brighter than it really is.  This invisible soldier had a red lens on his light.  One soldier didn’t carry a light one night, and mangled her shoulder.

A little photo magic superimposes the stars above with the camp below.  This is a single photo.

Practicing more low light shots before returning to combat next week.

There’s more light out there than meets the eye.

Photography is like writing.  Change a few little settings and a picture of the same scene can vary dramatically.

Same conditions.

Same place.

Dramatic differences.

Starry, starry night.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Simon · 12 years ago
    Another great post and pics, Michael.

    In the Aussie Army it's important that the Camelbak supplement but definitely NOT replace the canteen. Camelbaks are relatively easy to tear and one they have a small hole they are useless, so it's important to have some 'hard' water containers too. I would strongly advise any grunts reading this to carry a couple of canteens on their load-carrying equipment in addition to a Camelbak. If you don't, at best you could be deeply unpopular with your mates when you have to beg them for water. At worst, you could be in serious trouble!

    Photo descriptions don't show up on my RSS feed either. I just come to the blog itself to read them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter in MN · 12 years ago
    Bless you for that photo montage. I pray for you that peace may fill your boots with every step you take and be left as dsut on the ground as you passby.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Malcolm · 12 years ago
    Fantastic photo's Michael, maybe one day you'l lspot a comet or asteroid crashign into Jupiter like that amateur astronomer down in Oz!

    Anyway, best of luck to you and the lads of 2 Rifles in Helamnd, they've had a rough month or so, so if you read this please let them know that many back home many hope for their continued safety and success with their mission.

    If you're ever in the smoke, I'll stand you a pint or two.

    Stay safe and God bless.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mike w · 12 years ago
    Reading your reports and viewing pics evokes a strong desire - at age 66 - to share time and hardships with these brave soldiers of many countries. I'm sure their families and countries are justifiably proud of them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zeno Davatz · 12 years ago
    You should do lots more of these and you should upload all your Fotos to Flickr!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Darren · 12 years ago
    Funky photo work. Apparently there are weeds growing in Afghanistan? ;-)

    I bought your book (haven't had time to read it) and want to support this kind of reporting further.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ewakahuna · 12 years ago
    While the commentary encapsulated in the jpgs is excellent, the photos themselves speak wonders...
    Stay safe down south...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill Williams · 12 years ago
    How intrinsic is the poppy to the Afagani economy? If poppys went away would the economy suffer greatly?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    KP · 12 years ago
    Some great reading, and beautiful photos. Honestly, I can't get enough of your "boots-on-the-ground" perspective.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Haakon B. Dahl · 12 years ago
    I have been in Afghanistan for close to a year. You are telling the story I wanted to, but was unable. This beautiful country, filled with wonderful people, is something that must be seen to be believed. Things are hard, deadly, but we must not lose faith or bail out on this country. If we give up on Afghanistan, it will be our own throats we are cutting. I am active duty now; I am considering coming back with an NGO or a different arm of the U.S. government.
    Khoda Hafez,
    Hawk Dahl
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jo · 12 years ago
    This is probably too simplistic and naive but I don't understand why we and other interested countries don't pay the poppy farmers to grow and harvest the poppies, which they would then sell to pharmaceutical companies. The world will always need a constant supply of morphine. This could become a nationalized industry for the Afghans, thereby keeping the farmers happy and legitimate by ensuring they have good and regular income. They would no longer need to sell their harvest to warlords or terrorists; Afghanistan would have a thriving national industry that would boost its economy and the terrorists would be deprived of one of their main sources of money. There must be good reasons why this plan wouldn't work, or surely it would already have been adopted, wouldn't it?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PM · 12 years ago
    "The Crusaders beat the Pagans, and so now Lithuania is strongly Catholic. The priest gives a blessing before the mission."

    Well, not quite: The Lithuanian Grand Duke (Wladyslaw Jagiell converted & married the last member of the Piast dynasty of Poland in 1 89 and became King of Poland while remaining Grand Duke of Lithuania. Their combined armies inflicted a crushing defeat on the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. The two countries remained united only through the monarch (with two parliaments) until the Poles forced the Union of Lublin in 1569, at which point Poland and Lithuania became a single country (legally). If you want to see how large that union was, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Irp1569.jpg
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 12 years ago
    Valid question. I think opium poppies could grow in many places too numerous to control by the coalition forces. If the growers sold to the government only, they would likely be targets for the taliban who depend on the income. They were able to stop the growing when they were in charge, I believe. Good subject for a dispatch.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 12 years ago
    BTW, I recently learned that Australia grows poppies and supplies a large amount of opium for the legitimate medical market. They are having problems with wallabys that hang out in the fields getting high.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 12 years ago
    "This is probably too simplistic and naive but I don't understand why we and other interested countries don't pay the poppy farmers to grow and harvest the poppies, which they would then sell to pharmaceutical companies. The world will always need a constant supply of morphine."

    Actually, opium poppies produce more than just opiates: they also give us the poppy seeds used in baking and confectionery, and a valuable oil used both for cooking and (because it's a 'drying oil') in the preparation of oil paints and other industrial uses. So there *is* a potential for growing opium poppies as a legitimate cash crop, and I think it's likely that some illegal farms will 'go straight' if the Taliban is defeated in the opium growing areas. However, there is no shortage of well-established legitimate poppy growing businesses in other countries, so if *all* the illegal crop was dumped on the legitimate market there would be a glut, prices would crash, and the farmers would get virtually nothing for their crop.

    So, if making the poppy crop legitimate won't solve your problem, how about paying the farmers for their crop, and then burning it? Well, the problem with that option would be that you are basically putting the farmers into the extortion business: 'increase the price you pay for our poppies by 200%, or we start selling to the drug dealers again!'

    The only real solution is to help the farmers switch to other cash crops so that they will have a real incentive to stop growing poppies, and to improve infrastructure and education in the poppy growing areas to give people more options. This will be a long, slow process, and it will require a stable government and huge international investment, but it's really the only way.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dallas Peterson · 12 years ago
    If you get a chance to fly a Herc at night, especially with a chance to use NVG's, you'll marvel at the number of starry points of light across the landscape that looked barren and desolate by sunlight. Up the deep canyons and on mountain walls and peaks, as well as the plains, you can see where all the millions are spread out over the stark landscape.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Patrick Joubert Conl · 12 years ago
    Thank you, Mr Yon. Very moving.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eitan Rosenberg · 12 years ago
    Man you see the beauty in the small things, the soldiers are beautiful, the stars are beautiful, Afghanistan is beautiful, your a talented freekin man.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    pgp · 12 years ago
    Michael..My son is soon going to Iraq for the first time...Your pictures of these wonderful and compassionate soldiers and commanders make me see that my son will be in good company with people who truly care and will be looking out for one another. Thankyou a million times for the peace that brings me. The caring they show for the innocent ones in another country is how I have raised my son and I see now where he may make his mark in life though it is dangerous. Take care of yourself and be safe always. Thankyou
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Graeme D. · 12 years ago
    all I can say is thank you. I have been following your dispatches from the beginning and you are truly special. No one should miss your candid reporting, your fabulous pictures and your honest, objective reporting . In addition, I love your recent report on the USMC---God Bless all of them for their guts, their service to this country. And to all of our troops, Army, Airborne, Special Forces, Seals, Navy Pilots, Airforce-----Thank you and God Bless you.....how fortunate this country is to have men and women who fight for our freedom---

    Thank you, Michael---stay safe--
  • This commment is unpublished.
    AK · 12 years ago
    Why are we fighting to help an Islamic State? The Afghanistan Constitution clearly says, Article 1 [Islamic Republic]
    Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, independent, unitary and indivisible state.

    Article 2 [Religions]
    (1) The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.
    (2) Followers of other religions are free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of law. *authors comment - this means Dhimmitude for all Kuffar

    Article [Law and Religion]
    In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.

    These Articles clearly support Sharia Law and no other. Sharia Law by it's very nature is not compatible with any form of free government anywhere in the world. Freedom and Liberty are anethma to Islamic Law.

    Islamic Law will always be an enemy to any and all forms of secular governments anywhere in the world. So why are we propping up an Islamic State with the blood of our soldiers and a huge cost to our treasury - To what end?

    If we were however Nation building and dismantling the Islamic State and putting in a secular government based on Freedom and Liberty for all peoples then that would be a noble cause. The problem with that though is we would have to formally declare war on Political Islam and even after 9/11 our political leaders are afraid to even begin the discussion on the frightening realities of Sharia Law and it's supremacist ideology.

    God Bless America and God Bless our Troops

    Listen to Radio Jihad www.RadioJihad.org Listen now click here LISTEN NOW CLICK HERE PT. 1

  • This commment is unpublished.
    smalloy · 12 years ago
    I felt good about my Canon 50mm 1.4 until I saw your shots with the 1.2.

    My Christmas wish list just got a little longer.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JohnHoover · 12 years ago
    The Lithuanians are proud to say that Ghor Province is poppy free

    She cites documents from U.S. intelligence sources and the Drug Enforcement Agency that portray the U.S. and its allies as reluctant partners with bad guys, who routinely exploit their ­country’s poppy crops for various purposes. Alliances with the ­unsavory, the reasoning goes, can be used to fight for a greater good—beating the Soviets in the 1980s, beating back the resurgent Taliban now.
    Power of the Poppy
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ralphie · 12 years ago
    Yes...ans one can grow poppies that don't produce opium. Time to try something that has not been done before. We should be the Road-runner and let them be the Coyote for a change..hmm??
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 12 years ago
    "Yes...ans one can grow poppies that don't produce opium. Time to try something that has not been done before. We should be the Road-runner and let them be the Coyote for a change..hmm??"

    Opium poppies always produce opium, whether they are varieties grown for opium or those grown for oilseed. The varieties grown for opium likely produce a bit more, but if you grow opium poppies of any type they have the potential to be used to produce opium. It may be possible to develop a variety that doesn't contain usable amounts of opium, but I doubt that would be easy or cheap. if you are talking about developing other species of poppies (for example, the corn poppy) as a commercial oilseed crop - that would be possible, as corn poppies were grown for that purpose in the past. However, opium poppies produce much larger oilseed yields (which is why they are used for the purpose), so I doubt that other species could compete commercially, and developing varieties of them that could would be very expensive and time-consuming.

    Now, suppose that somebody did develop either an opium-free opium poppy, or a high-yield corn poppy. You are back to the problem I mentioned before: if all the illegal farms suddenly start producing oilseed for the legitimate market there will be a glut, prices will drop, and the farmers will get virtually nothing. Add to this the expense you generated 're-inventing the wheel', and you will lose a literal fortune. Expensive, over-complicated, and doomed to fail - sounds *exactly* like a Wile E. Coyote plan, doesn't it?

    As I said before, the solution is simple (although tricky to put into practice): help the farmers to change to other crops, while improving education and infrastructure to give people more options for earning a living. It's what we are already trying to do, anyway.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 12 years ago
    Michael, the night time photos are awesome. Too much light and pollution in California to see that many stars.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cathi L. · 12 years ago
    Michael, I've been following your reports for several years now. I can't come close to telling you how much I appreciate your pictures and your writing, your clarity and focus. Information on these regions and the peoples occupying these regions is just not available in the mainstream and I feel it's tremendously important to be able to understand where we are fighting and who we are helping. I'll continue to value your dispatches and I'll also continue to spread your good work to whoever will listen.

    I support our troops 100% and I hope you will always walk with as much safety as possible in these lands.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    khush Haal Khan · 12 years ago
    To all fine men and women who put your life on the line in Afghanistan,
    Please ,please pause for just a minute to reflect on the following: After everything that is done and said,it boils down to this indisputable fact: Islam is against liberty and it is strongly hostile to freedom. Why should we sacrifice our fine men and women to prop up Islam??Tell me why?? Are we so stupid or are we so afraid of Islam that we don't have the guts to call a spade a spade??!!Yes, we must fight Islamic fascists but why did Bush allow an Islamic constitution?? shame ,damn shame!!what a waste of sacrifice and our resources! Islam is indeed evil and you my brave fellows ,fight evil hard and you have evry reason to feel proud for this fight.The Afghans are not Arabs;the Arabs imposed this evil Islam on Afghans in the 7th century by the sword.The Afghans s themselves had a remarkable civilization and religion before the Arab armies destroyed all that.We need to remind and educate Afghans about this as over 98% of them are unaware of their own history because the truth is not allowed to be discussed in AFGHANISTAN BECAUSE ANYONE WHO ATTEMPTS TO DISCUSS THE TRUTH ABOUT ISLAM IS PUNISHED BY DEATH.All persons over in AFSTAN,PLEASE DO NOTHING THAT MIGHT IMPOWER ISLAM ESPECIALLY THOSE AFGHANS WHO ARE PRO ISLAM OR PRO ARAB .WE SHOULD EMPOWER ONLY THOSE AFGHANS WHO HAVE RESPECT FOR FREEDOM ESPECIALLY FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION-THERE ARE MANY SUCH AFGHANS .LETS EMPOWER THESE SO THEY CAN RULE THE REST OF AFGHANS UNTIL SUCH TIME WHEN MOST AFGHANS ARE EDUCATED ABOUT RESPECT FOR FREEDOM.THIS CAN BE DONE,IT JUST REQUIRES BETTER PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTATION.also be aware that Pakistan,Saudi Arabia,Iran and other Arabs are doing everything to perpetuate and shove islam down the throat of gullible Afghans.ONLY THEN OUR SACRIFICES WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN WASTED.YOU CAN DO IT;I AM SURE OF IT IF YOU JUST IMPOWER ONLY THOSE AFGHANS WHO ARE WILLING TO IMPLEMENT FREEDOM AND THERE MANY,MANY SUCH AFGHANS. GOOD LUCK TO ALL AND MORE POWER TO YOU TO DEFEAT ISLAMIC EVIL.THANK YOU AK FOR EXPOSING THIS NASTY ISLAMIV EVIL Kush Haal Khan
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kenneth · 12 years ago
    You are quite correct on this one. Filipinos are scattered all around the world to find jobs even in war torn Afghanistan and Somalia.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tim · 12 years ago
    Great photos! It is nice to see the perspective of what our men and women are seeing. It seems that the only time the media here in the states shows us anything about the war, it is spun in a negative way. Continue the mission!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rahul Wani · 11 years ago
    Hello Michael Sir, really to salute to such not only beutiful but amazing photos..I dont know english much but after seeing your photos i thought to write some comments on your photos... After seeing your photos i was feeling that i am in Afghan.. cant say much but realy great photos.. your showing us the photos where we can nt reach...thanx & best wishes for you...tk cr....

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