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How 'modern-day slavery' in the Congo powers the rechargeable battery economy

Siddharth Kara talks about how cell phones and electronic vehicles are powered by cobalt mined by workers in slave-like conditions in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is an essential component of the rechargeable batteries used in devices and EV's. He has researched modern day slavery and human trafficking for over twenty years.


Other segments from the episode on February 1, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 1, 2023: Interview with Siddharth Kara; Review of Close



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our smartphones and electric vehicles, emblems of the modern world, are powered by workers in slave-like conditions mining for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cobalt is an essential component of the rechargeable batteries used in devices and EVs. Electric vehicles are supposed to be a big part of the solution to lowering carbon emissions, but cobalt mining in the Congo is not only a human catastrophe; it's an environmental disaster. Congo has more reserves of cobalt than the rest of the planet combined, but there's no such thing as a clean supply chain of cobalt from the Congo, writes my guest, Siddharth Kara. He says all cobalt sourced from the Congo is tainted by various degrees of abuse, including slavery, child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking and incalculable environmental harm.

Kara has been researching modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labor for over 20 years and has just published his fourth book. It's called "Cobalt Red," and it's based on his trips to the Congo in 2018, 2019 and 2021. 2020 was COVID year, and that's the year he didn't travel there. He took great risks to go to the cobalt mines, many of which are guarded by the military or militias which definitely don't want human rights activists snooping around. He says perceived troublemakers can be arrested, tortured or worse. Kara is a senior fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and an associate professor of human trafficking and modern slavery at Nottingham University in England. His book, "Sex Trafficking: Inside The Business Of Modern Slavery," won the 2010 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.

Siddharth Kara, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with why is cobalt so essential for our phones and EV batteries?

SIDDHARTH KARA: Well, cobalt is used in the manufacture of almost every single lithium-ion rechargeable battery used in the world today, so that means almost every smartphone, tablet, laptop and, crucially, electric vehicle used around the world.

GROSS: So let's talk about the mines and the conditions of the adults and children who work in them. There's two kinds of mines, the industrial mines owned by big companies and then these - there are the artisanal miners. So let's start with them. Artisanal sounds kind of very arts and crafts-y, very boutique-y. What does artisanal mining actually mean?

KARA: Yes. That term belies the truth, the reality of the degrading conditions under which the, quote-unquote, "artisanal" miners work. You have to imagine walking around some of these mining areas and dialing back our clock centuries. People are working in subhuman, grinding, degrading conditions. And they're called artisanal miners because they use pickaxes, shovels, stretches of rebar to hack and scrounge at the earth in trenches and pits and tunnels to gather cobalt and feed it up the formal supply chain.

GROSS: And they're freelancers, and they're not working for a mining company. They're more like the gold rush miners in California in the mid-1800s, except they get paid, like, next to nothing, and the conditions are horrible. So describe what these mines look like. And I should mention, according to The New York Times in 2021, 30% of the cobalt that is mined is artisanal in the Congo.

KARA: At least. And this is a really important thing to understand, Terry. You know, outside the Congo, there's this story that there are these two categories, industrial mine and artisanal mining. But down on the ground, there's no such thick dividing line. Industrial mines - almost all of them have artisanal miners digging in and around them, feeding cobalt into the formal supply chain. And outside of industrial mines, where the local population digs for cobalt, all that cobalt still flows into the formal supply chain. So that's why I make the statement, there's no such thing as clean cobalt coming out of the Congo. There's complete cross-contamination between industrial, excavator-derived cobalt and cobalt that's dug by women and children with their bare hands.

GROSS: So describe what these artisanal mines look like.

KARA: Well, you have to imagine, like, a lunar landscape. The earth has been hacked up, dug up, upturned for miles and miles in every direction. The trees are gone. The air is a suffocating toxic haze of dust and grit. And people are in trenches, in pits, in tunnels, caked in toxic filth. Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe. And there are hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people touching and breathing it day in and day out, young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all breathing in this toxic cobalt dust. And the whole landscape has just been destroyed. Millions of trees have been clear-cut by giant mining companies. The water, the earth has been contaminated with toxic effluents from mining processing. It's hard to capture in words just how horrific the landscape is and the scene of human degradation is.

GROSS: You compare these workers to modern-day slaves. You call them modern-day slaves. What is worthy of such a horrible comparison?

KARA: Imagine an entire population of people who cannot survive without scrounging in hazardous conditions for a dollar or two a day. There is no alternative there. The mines have taken over everything. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced because their villages were just bulldozed over to make place for large mining concessions. So you have people with no alternative, no other source of income. Now add to that the menace, in many cases, of armed forces pressuring people to dig, parents having to make a painful decision. Do I send my child to school, or do we eat today? And if they choose the latter, that means bringing all their kids into these toxic pits to dig just to earn that extra 50 cents or a dollar a day that could mean the difference between eating or not. So in the 21st century, this is modern-day slavery. It's not chattel slavery from the 18th century, where you can buy and trade people and own title over a person like property. But the level of degradation, the level of exploitation is on par with Old World slavery.

GROSS: Besides the toxic aspect of the mining, what are some of the dangers involved in artisanal mining?

KARA: Well, I spoke with many families whose children, husbands, spouses, had suffered horrific injuries. Oftentimes, digging in these larger open-air pits, there are pit wall collapses. Imagine a mountain of gravel and stone just avalanches down on people, crushing legs and arms, spines. I met people whose legs had been amputated, who had metal bars where their legs used to be. And then the worst of all, Terry, is what happens in tunnel digging. There are probably 10- to 15,000 tunnels that are dug by hand by artisanal miners. None of them have supports, ventilation shafts, rock bolts, anything like that. And these tunnels collapse all the time, burying alive everyone who is down there, including children. It's a demise that is almost impossibly horrific to imagine. And yet I met mothers pounding their chests in grief, talking about their children who had been buried alive in a tunnel collapse.

GROSS: So these industrial mines, they're owned by companies. The companies don't confess that the conditions are like this. So is this considered illegal, these working conditions and the child labor? Are they considered illegal in Congo but they happen anyways? Or is there no oversight at all?

KARA: Well, technically, under the law, there should not be artisanal mining taking place in any industrial mine. And yet, lo and behold, at most of the industrial mines, there is some artisanal mining taking place, in some cases predominantly artisanal mining taking place. And the reason is it's a penny-wage way to boost production. I mean, imagine you're in a part of the world where there are millions of people who barely get a dollar or two a day, who are grindingly poor and will accept almost any labor arrangement just to survive. Well, you put them in a tight pit, cram them with 10,000 other people, and pay them a couple of dollars, and they'll produce, you know, thousands of tons of cobalt per year for almost no wages. And so that's not legal, but it's happening.

GROSS: So no one knows if the cobalt that they're buying from Congo for the batteries that they're going to manufacture for our devices and electric vehicles - no one knows whether these are from unauthorized artisanal mines or from official industrial mines or authorized artisanal mines. So how is the cobalt that is not from authorized mines laundered into the larger supply chain?

KARA: No company at the top of the chain can reasonably claim that their supply of cobalt is untainted by artisanal production, child labor, forced labor, degraded labor and so forth. And it's because of the following reality. There's this informal layer of the supply chain beneath the formal mining operations through which that artisanal cobalt is - and you use the right word - laundered into the formal supply chain. Now, as I said, there are some artisanal diggers who work inside industrial mining companies and sell production directly inside the mines.

But for that artisanal cobalt that is dug in all the hundreds of sites all over that part of the Congo, there are these traders. They're called negociants. They will buy your sack of cobalt for a dollar or two, and they will either sell it directly to a formal mining company or, more often than not, to another intermediary called buying houses, or depots. And these depots aggregate large amounts of copper-cobalt sacks purchased from negociants or sometimes directly from artisanal miners. And then, these depots sell tons and tons of copper-cobalt by the sack load to formal mining companies. And that's how all this artisanal flow enters the formal supply chain and why nobody really knows what's industrial, what is artisanal.

GROSS: Well, this also allows plausible deniability, doesn't it?

KARA: That's right. You can stand outside the Congo at the top of the chain selling your phones and cars and say, well, I buy from ABC Mining Company. And ABC Mining Company has told me that this cobalt is all gathered through excavators and industrial techniques, so I can rely on that assurance. But underneath that is this entire flow of child-mined and forced labor-mined and degrading conditions-mined cobalt that flows into the formal supply chain.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Siddharth Kara, author of the new book "Cobalt Red: How The Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Siddharth Kara, author of the new book "Cobalt Red." It's about the slavelike conditions of the workers in the Congo who mine for cobalt, an essential component of the rechargeable batteries in smartphones, devices, electric vehicles and more. These are the people at the very bottom of the supply chain. Congo has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the world combined.

Let's talk about the industrial mines. Just describe one of the larger ones that you visited.

KARA: So when you get into an industrial mine - and I haven't been to all of them. I was prevented access at some and allowed access at others. But these concessions, Terry, are enormous. The largest copper-cobalt mining concession in that part of the Congo is about the size of Greater London. They're just enormous. And they will contain several giant open-air pits that could be four, five, 600 meters across and several hundred meters deep. And then, you multiply that by four, five, six, seven, eight different pits where the excavation is taking place. And they'll have processing facilities adjacent to them.

You know, cobalt is always bound in nature to copper and usually nickel as well. And so these metals, all of which are used in rechargeable batteries, have to be separated. So there's a processing stage that takes place. And these big, big industrial companies have these giant processing facilities, most of which use sulfuric acid and other industrial acids to separate out the metals. Well, if a company - a mining company were processing these metals in our backyards, they'd be doing it in a sustainable basis. Down in the Congo, all of the toxic effluents are just released into the air, into the water. And you can see these hazes of toxicity floating over the landscape.

GROSS: There is child labor involved in the mines in the Congo. And some of these children, I think, are basically kidnapped and trafficked. Is that right?

KARA: That's right. There's - like we said, there's money to be made, Terry, in every corner and every direction. And you've got these militias. Sometimes they're called commandos. And they will abduct children, traffic children, recruit children from even other parts of the Congo. I met children who had come from hundreds of miles away and had have been brought through militia networks down into the copper-cobalt mines to dig. And as they dig and earn their dollar or two, you know, that's what funds these militia groups. So children are the most heavily exploited of all the people down there. They're the most vulnerable and oftentimes trafficked and exploited, in some cases, in very violent circumstances.

GROSS: You mentioned girls and women in the mines. You also write about the large number of women and girls who are sexually assaulted in the mines.

KARA: Yeah. It's really bleak, Terry, in some of these places. You know, women and girls are so vulnerable and so heavily exploited. And you surround them with young men, militias, army guys, mining police, and they're just preyed upon from every direction. I often would walk around a mining area, and when I saw a 17- or 18-year-old girl with a little baby strapped to her back, I wondered, now, how did that baby come into the world?

GROSS: Now, you mentioned how heavily guarded by militias or the military the mines are. You got tours for some of them, but for the ones where you weren't given an official tour and you were not welcome, or you wouldn't have been welcome if people knew who you were, how did you get to observe what was going on?

KARA: Yeah - is - I had to rely very much on ground relationships. And I spent quite a bit of time building trust with people in local communities who could then take me into these areas. You're absolutely right. I couldn't just go marching into an artisanal mining area, let alone an industrial mine, looking around and asking questions. That would have led to very negative consequences. But with local guides, people trusted in certain communities - once they trusted me, they would take me into certain areas where, through an extension of them, I was able to access communities of artisanal miners and conduct interviews or - and just observe.

GROSS: Did you need official permissions from government officials to officially visit some of the mines?

KARA: Yes. So when I - one of the first things that happened when I went into the - my first trip was one of my guides said, OK, before you go anywhere, before we go into any villages or mining areas, we need to get something that could very well save your life. And he said, we need to get a stamp and signature from the governor's office for that province. And so that was one of the first things I did on my first trip, was I went to the governor's office and spoke to a provincial government official, described who I was and what I wanted to try to do. And I didn't really understand the value of it at the time, but I got a stamp and signature on my visa paperwork. And on that very first trip, I think it ended up saving my life because it gave just a basic veneer of security for me that the - that provincial government officials had sort of authorized me to be moving around and walking around in some of the mining areas.

GROSS: What is a close call that you had?

KARA: Yeah. I was in a very remote artisanal mining area, many kilometers northwest of a town called Kambove. It was under militia control, and my local guides had gotten a sense that it would be clear to go into that area and conduct some interviews on that particular day. And we drove up into the area and then - as far as we could and then hiked from there. And I remember there was a long trench and hundreds of children and some adults digging around in that area. And I started talking to some of them, some of the groups of children, and suddenly I heard this shouting and gunshots. And my guide and I whirled around, and these commandos were just rushing at us. They had AK-47s, machetes. They were up on us in seconds, started shoving me around, demanded my phone to see if I'd taken pictures, threw my backpack down, and I thought that was it. I thought, wow, is this going to be the end of my story in this remote hill in the middle of the Congo?

And I looked at my guide, and the blood had just drained from his face, but he stayed very calm. And he said, get that piece of paper with the stamp and signature on it. By that time, my stuff was all over the dirt, but I found the folder. I took it out. We showed it to the head of this commando unit, and it just bought us enough of a sense of - he wasn't sure how far he should push it and just ordered us out of that area immediately. And I think that was the difference between a much worse outcome than I faced.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Siddharth Kara, author of the new book "Cobalt Red: How The Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives." He's been investigating modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labor for over 20 years. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Siddharth Kara. His new book, "Cobalt Red," is about how smartphones and electric vehicles are made possible by workers in slave-like conditions who mine for cobalt in the Congo. Cobalt is an essential part of the rechargeable batteries in our devices and EVs. And the Congo has more reserves of cobalt than the rest of the world combined. Cobalt mining is not just a human catastrophe, it's an environmental disaster. Yet we are relying on electric vehicles as an essential part of green energy to lower carbon emissions. Siddharth Kara has been researching modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labor for over 20 years and is the author of three previous books on those subjects.

So a paradox, now, of the green movement is that EVs - or electric vehicles - are such a major part of the plan to lower carbon emissions because gas-powered automobiles create so much carbon emissions. But most of our cobalt - or maybe all of our cobalt - comes from the Congo. So I want to get straight. So now that we know that there's, you know, slave-like conditions in the mines in the Congo, your point isn't so you've got to give up your cellphone and your EV. Your point is, we've got to reform what's happening in the Congo. Am I correct?

KARA: That's precisely correct, Terry. You know, we've all been made unwitting participants in this horrific human rights and environmental catastrophe taking place in the Congo. That's not to say that we should all stop using smartphones and not transition to sustainable forms of energy, but the supply chain needs to be fixed. The bottom of the supply chain, where almost all the world's cobalt is coming from, is a horror show. And, you know, we shouldn't be conducting our daily lives, we shouldn't be transitioning to the use of electric vehicles, at the cost of the people and environment of one of the most downtrodden and impoverished corners of the world.

GROSS: China owns most of the industrial mines in the Congo. How did it come to be that China owns those mines?

KARA: Yes, Terry, China cornered the global cobalt market before anyone knew what was happening. It goes back to the year 2009 under the previous president in the Congo, Joseph Kabila. He signed a deal with the Chinese government for access to mining concessions in exchange for development assistance, a commitment to build roads and some public health clinics, schools, hospitals, things like that. And that opened the door. And before anyone knew what happened, Chinese companies had seized ownership of 15 of the 19 primary industrial copper cobalt mining concessions down there. So they dominate mining excavation on the ground. And not just that, they dominate the chain all the way through to the battery level. They have about 70-, 80% of the refined cobalt market and probably half of the battery market. And from there, you just have consumer-facing tech and EV companies.

GROSS: How much corruption is there in the supply chain? In other words - so China made a deal with the leaders of the Congo. But within the Congo, is there a lot of, like, payback and corruption and bribery and taking money from the top and not giving it to where it's supposed to go?

KARA: Yes, absolutely, Terry. Corruption is a big part of the problem. That's what allows so much of this abuse to persist. And the thing is - imagine the Congo. It's a war-torn, deeply impoverished nation that has been subjected to generations of pillage and ransacking, going all the way back now centuries to the slave trade. And so when big foreign stakeholders come waving around large sums of money, it's not a long stretch of the imagination to see that there would be corruption. Corruption would be the - be a part of this entire scenario.

But what we have to bear in mind is the Congo had a chance at independence. And it was taught a very important lesson at independence. The first democratically elected president of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, made a pledge that the country's immense mineral riches and resources would be used for the benefit of the people who live there. And in short order, within six months, he had been deposed, assassinated, chopped to pieces, dissolved in acid and replaced with a bloody dictator, a corrupt dictator, who would keep the minerals flowing in the right direction. So if you don't play ball with the power brokers at the top of the chain and with the Global North, Patrice Lumumba showed what's the outcome, what will happen. And I think that's also a part of this lesson that we need to understand historically when we talk about things like corruption.

GROSS: Chinese investment in cobalt in Africa was supposed to be a win-win for China. China gets to, you know, extract all this cobalt and make a lot of profit from that. And also by China building, you know, roads and schools in the Congo, China enhances its political sway over the country, its political power in the country. Has it actually turned into a win-win for China?

KARA: It's a total win for China. I think not so much for Congo. The second win in that in that equation is meant to be Congo - so a win-win on both ends. But it's just been a win for China. I mean, they secured access to cobalt at the dawn of the lithium-ion battery revolution. They vertically integrated the supply chain before the West knew what was happening. But the roads they were supposed to build, the commitments to infrastructure development have been lagging, of poor quality. They don't hire locally when they do start infrastructure projects. They actually bring workers from China to do all the work and then ship them back. So the Congo has largely been left behind in this win-win formula. I think the only people in the Congo who benefited from these arrangements were the kleptocrats at the top of the Congolese government who signed these deals.

GROSS: You've managed to get into places, into mines, that you were not welcome. Have you tried and have you succeeded in speaking to any of the CEOs of some of the companies that really profit from electric vehicles and smartphones, devices?

KARA: No, I have not proactively reached out prior to the publication of "Cobalt Red." I would very much anticipate some exchange with them after the book has come out.

GROSS: Why haven't you reached out?

KARA: Well, I didn't want to front-run the book, you know?

GROSS: What do you mean?

KARA: What I mean is so much of what takes place now with these companies is marketing and PR about what's happening in the Congo. And if I engage before what I think is the truth has come out in the book, my worry was, that engagement will be used to advance more marketing and PR that the problems are under control, they're being dealt with, without the truth being fully out in the world. The first step is truth telling, bringing a light into this heart of darkness. And if we can agree on what the truth is, then we can engage constructively. And I didn't want to contribute to or even enable any further narratives that, well, we're engaging, and the problems don't affect our supply chain.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Siddharth Kara, author of the new book "Cobalt Red: How The Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Siddharth Kara, author of the new book "Cobalt Red." It's about the slavelike conditions of the workers in the Congo who mine for cobalt, an essential component of the rechargeable batteries in smartphones, devices, electric vehicles and more. These are the people at the very bottom of the supply chain. Congo has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the world combined.

Before you became a researcher on sex trafficking and child labor and slavelike working conditions, you were in the finance world. You'd been an investment banker at Merrill Lynch, and then, you ran your own finance and merger and acquisitions consulting firms. And the finance world is really - it's all about making money. How did you go from that to investigating human trafficking and modern-day slavery?

KARA: Yeah, talk about a sharp left turn.

GROSS: Yeah, really.

KARA: Yeah, I was on Wall Street back in the late '90s at Merrill Lynch as an investment banker, earning a good salary and doing M&A deals and IPOs. And it was fast-paced and exciting. But I just had a moment where I reflected, now, why exactly have I been put on this planet? Is it to pad my bank account? Or is there some greater good that I can try to contribute to the world? And I had an experience volunteering in refugee camps in the former Yugoslavia when I was an undergraduate student. And that's the first time I came across stories of things like sex trafficking and human trafficking more generally. And those stories and that experience from that refugee camp, it always sort of stuck with me.

And as I was reflecting on the what is the purpose of my time on this planet, I hearkened back to that summer that I spent in the refugee camp, and I thought, you know, are these kinds of things still happening? And what are people doing about it? And I thought, well, if I'm ever going to take that sharp left turn in life, now is the time. This is back, you know, 22 years ago, when I was young and unmarried and could take big risks. So I did, and I just left it all behind. I did not have a plan or a background in this kind of work at all. But I thought, let me just try and see if I can understand this world of trafficking and slavery and child labor and formulate a way to make a contribution. And if I can't, I'll at least know that I tried.

GROSS: So I can't pretend to know a lot about the world of finance. But in mergers and acquisitions, companies often are made to look profitable by cutting employees, cutting expenses and services, and thereby increasing stock value because the company is showing a profit. But they're showing a profit not by doing better, but by just cutting expenses. And then, often, that company's just sold off, and the owner of that company makes a big profit. Did you do anything in mergers and finance that started to, like, bother your conscience 'cause you thought people were being hurt?

KARA: You know, what bothered my conscience was I was in this part of the world where it was just unbridled avarice. There was just so much chasing of money and so much greed and so - there was never enough. And I saw - 'cause I'm South Asian, you know, and I've seen poverty. As a child in India, I would see children who looked just like me but were so much more unfortunate and disadvantaged just by fluke of birth. And it just started to gnaw at my conscience that I was in this ecosystem that was so driven by money and profit and greed. And what was it actually contributing to the betterment of humanity, if anything? And, yes, as you rightly point out, so much of that chasing and inflating of wealth comes at great cost - cutting jobs, cutting costs, offshoring.

I mean, we're now touching on the entire logic that when you take it to the extreme, you end up with slavery, which is the elimination of labor costs, to boost profitability. And that was the logic from the outset. It wasn't just cruelty for cruelty's sake. And I mean, it was cruel. It was racist. It was vile. It was all those things. But fundamentally, it was an economic offense, economic exploitation, to boost profitability. And here we are in the year 2023 talking about a value chain that's operating under that same logic. Let's minimize and strip out and eliminate the cost of labor in order to boost profitability at the top of the chain. And that's colonial logic. That's slave logic. And it should be repugnant to all of us in the 21st century.

GROSS: There's one incident in your new book in which you write about the mother of a child who was seriously injured in one of the mining accidents, and she desperately really needed money to get him medical care, to get him to the hospital. She didn't have money to get him to the hospital. She asked you for help. And you write a little bit about how a lot of people asked you for help because they had no money. And you can't help everybody financially who you meet, but you did help this one mother. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to be faced so frequently with requests for financial help? Because as we've stated many times, the people who you were writing about were - I mean, they were basically, like, destitute. So what's the calculus you did in your mind about whether and who to help?

KARA: It's so painful, Terry. Those encounters are so painful because my capacity to help is perforce very limited. And I know the - you know, the person you're talking about, that mother - I was in this town called Fungurume. Her child had suffered a horrific injury in a pit wall collapse. And that child was close to death. I mean, you don't have hospitals there with antibiotics and medical care, you know, at all, let alone for the poorest people. And he was pretty close to sepsis. I mean, he was burning with fever, that child. And they tell me the story of what happened to him. And then his mother just implores me and beseeches for help. She can see her child is dying.

And, you know, I can't help everyone. And I can't help as much as I want to. And then there's this calculus in your - in mind at the moment that, oh, if I leave this mother, this desperate mother and child, some money, wouldn't some other equally desperate mother who hears about it come and take it from her and maybe, in her desperation, cause her harm to get that money for her child? And then you have this kind of cascading sequence of unintended negative consequences running through your mind and think, is it best to just never help anyone?

And in that particular case, I just - I couldn't bear the thought that I was going to take this child's story and then just walk away when I could see that he just didn't have long to live. And so working with my guide, I just discreetly tried to leave what I could. It probably didn't buy much time for that child. But every day, every week, is so precious down there.

And the other thing is, you know, I might meet another mother and child. And maybe that child isn't in quite as bleak a circumstance at that moment. But that's just because that is when I'm meeting them. If I met that child two weeks later, they might be in the same condition. And so these sort of nightmarish thoughts and ethical quandaries are constantly preying on, you know, a researcher's mind when you're in these types of areas. And I don't think there are right or wrong answers other than just try one's best not to accidentally do more harm than good.

GROSS: Do you have nightmares about the people you've met and the places you've visited and the trauma?

KARA: Yeah. Yeah. No, I do. You know, there are certain incidents in particular or certain encounters that maybe it was because of the day, and I was really rundown, or maybe it was the particular tragedy that had happened that was being recounted to me, but there are some incidents that are just so burned into me that they'll come at me just like a terror. And it's hard, you know?

I just hope I've done justice to those stories and to the people who shared their tragedies with me, courageously shared these tragedies with me. I just want that their voices should reach the world. And then the world will decide what to do with this truth and the testimonies of the Congolese people. But if I've done some justice to bringing those voices out into the world that can scarcely function without the suffering of the Congolese people, then it's all worth it, even the nightmares and the terrors. It's all worth it.

GROSS: Well, Siddharth Kara, thank you so much for your work and for this interview. Thank you.

KARA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Siddharth Kara is the author of the new book "Cobalt Red: How The Blood Of The Congo Powers Our Lives." After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best International Feature. It's a Belgian film about the friendship between two 13-year-old boys. This is FRESH AIR.


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