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Bruce Ladebu and the Children’s Rescue Initiative

Forty million. Let that number sink in. That’s the consensus total estimate for the number of people in the world who are trapped in modern slavery. That’s more people than the entire state of California and more than the populations of Sweden, Greece, and Portugal combined. It’s not happening behind closed doors; it’s hiding in plain sight, and taking on various forms from sex trafficking to human trafficking to labor slavery and debt slavery, where people have borrowed money, been charged ridiculous interest, and can’t pay it back, which often results in multiple generations of servitude. 

“When I go and speak, you can see some people react, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this.’ Other people, they just blank out, they check out on you,” explains Bruce Ladebu, founder of the Children’s Rescue Initiative. “I think everybody processes it differently, but I think now there’s enough information out there that people are becoming very aware that we have a global epidemic and a rising epidemic here in the United States.” 

child slavery

Young children are made to work 14-plus hours a day turning over bricks to dry. With little food, bad water, and cruel treatment; many don't survive. Photography by Depuhl

Bruce Ladebu isn’t just talking about it, he’s doing something about it. A former military serviceman and professional wilderness and adventure guide, Ladebu founded The Children’s Rescue Initiative (CRI) designed to save men, women, and children who are trapped in countries around the world. To date, the organization has rescued 2,204 victims, while also nurturing and preparing them for life outside of slavery. “When you walk into a factory and you literally see dozens, or sometimes hundreds of people enslaved, and you rescue a couple and you’re walking out with dozens and dozens of other slaves begging you to help free them, I just couldn’t sleep. So, I realized I had to raise money to do this, and to do that I wanted to be able to do it properly and help the rescued by setting them up with host families, and clothing and food, and a shot at a better life.”

Bruce Ladebu sat down with RECOIL to discuss the horrors of slavery, how his organization is creating awareness about this crisis, and how his three-step program is helping victims move forward in life.

bruce ladebu quote

“We‘ve been under some pretty dire circumstances to the point of getting death threats and even some attempts on our lives — I was actually poisoned in a restaurant, and it took me months to recover. “– Bruce Ladebu, Founder, Children’s Rescue Initiative

RECOIL: Tell us a little bit about your background and what ultimately led you to this path? 

Bruce Ladebu: I went into the military straight out of high school, and after leaving the military, I spent the next 20 years as a professional in the outdoors, leading thousands of clients in wilderness guiding, adventure, survival courses, hard-core expeditions, and general exploration. Along the way, I got into ministry for a while, which led to traveling to other countries, speaking, and helping do humanitarian work. It all kind of segued into traveling in the ex-Soviet countries in the early ’90s when we started hearing about human trafficking. I started asking a lot of questions but had no one to give me answers because there were very few people who recognized it and were willing to be involved at the time.

What pushed you to get involved in rescue efforts?

Bruce Ladebu: In the early ’00s, we did some covert work in Eastern Europe to try to find out what was going on, and what we found was pretty horrifying — a lot of sales of women and girls — but I didn’t know what to do at that time. Then, in 2009, I was in another country, as I’d been asked to come over and address a group of local leaders there. They started telling me about slave children, and took me and my team to a factory, where I got to see them myself. I started to talk to them through the interpreter and found out that they were part of a rope factory. These kids were just in bad shape. They were malnourished and many of them had scars, so I didn’t let them go back. We rescued them right there.

So, you did the first rescue and put those kids in a safe home. Obviously, you were very affected by that particular trip. How did that move you and what did you do next?

Bruce Ladebu: It changed my life that very moment. I can trace back to when I looked at this little boy named Faisal. He had scars on his head, and I took him over to my host. I said, “Meet your new son. He’s not going back.” That was a life-changing moment because from that moment on, I dedicated my life to rescuing children from the horrors of slavery. That was 2009.

Sounds like the boy’s situation really inspired you.

Bruce Ladebu: We went to interview him a year after we rescued him. When we started to ask him about his life in the factory, he just cried and cried. There were a lot of scars on his head, and we found out that he had been beaten with metal rods on a daily basis. He recovered to the point that he would be waiting back at the place where we would take all the people we rescued, and he would be the one who would pass out food to the other newly rescued slaves. He would just be smiling ear to ear. Then he learned how to be a barber, and he also learned how to do mechanics. That first time I went back after we rescued him, he ran along our car as we were leaving, and he kept yelling, “I love you!” There wasn’t a dry eye in the vehicle.

children's Rescue Initiative

A CRI team member gently wipes the mud off a child’s face after being rescued from labor slavery in the mud pits of a brick kiln. Photography by Depuhl

What are some of the observations you have made since that first rescue? How bad are things?

Bruce Ladebu: I mean we’re talking about innocent little children that are just in horrible situations. I’ve seen hardened combat veterans after we have pulled some little 8-year-old girls from a brothel; they’re weeping. We have a lot of evidence now of kidneys being removed and sold on the black market. I’ve got pictures of scars on their lower backs, where their kidneys were removed. In some areas, there’s actually the harvesting of the child, where they’re taking all the organs. The youngest girl that we ever rescued from a brothel was 3 years old. Probably 100 percent of every boy and every girl that we’ve ever rescued has been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused. The average age of child slaves that I have rescued is 8 or 9 years old. I was at one place, we had just arrived and found out that the slave owner had just beaten two little girls to death. I’ve got pictures of kids some of whom I have rescued that had acid thrown on them because they were being punished. That’s just the start of what we’ve seen and experienced. I mean, it’s bad. Two of my guys working in a territory for us had to bury 700 kids in six months that died in the slave fields.

We have rescued some people in their 80s that never knew a day of freedom in their life and were born into slavery. We had a woman who was around 90 years old, had been a slave her entire life. She said she had just been praying forever that she would be able to be free to go home to her ancestral family village to pass away. We got her there, and I think she passed away two weeks later.

What have you learned about the perpetrators?

Bruce Ladebu: It’s completely predatory. The traffickers in a lot of these countries, when they know that there’s a natural disaster, they ride around looking for displaced children and just take them. Or if kids run away from an abusive family, like they do here, the traffickers are looking for them. They’ve got systems to do it, whether it’s here in the U.S. or those other countries. In fact, one of the biggest trafficking events in the United States is the Super Bowl. 

You have been doing this now for 11 years. What long-term effects of the trauma do you see being reflected in the children?      

Bruce Ladebu: One of the other interesting things that I found out was that there was a difference in the healing process between the kids born into slavery and the kids who were taken and put into slavery. The kids that were born into slavery, they recovered much better. The children that were taken and traumatized from playing in their backyard, taken off the street or after a natural disaster, their recovery is a much more complex and lengthy process. No scientific study there, but that’s been my observation over 11 years of doing this. We support every child that we’ve rescued over the last two years. 

Just rescued out of labor slavery, these children receive their first meal in freedom. Photography by Depuhl

Tell us about the support system.

Bruce Ladebu: There are three processes: Rescue, Restore, and Raise Up. We rescue them, we get them healthy, and then get them into a position to be successful in life or maybe even helping with our organization’s future efforts. 

What tactics do you use when dealing with the captors of the enslaved?

Bruce Ladebu: When we started out, the only thing I knew to do was to raise some money to pay off debts, but I knew that if a family owed $500, they would never be able to pay that off, but if I paid their debt to the slave owner, they would just go out and buy more kids. So, I came up with an idea. I’ll just offer them 10 cents on a dollar. I’ll give it directly to the slave to pay it off, but we’ll have all these cameras going and we’ll have this group of people so that they won’t be able to resist. I think by the second or third year that I was doing this, we were just going in and chasing down slave owners and saying, “We’re taking all the orphans. We’re taking these families. They’re in medical need. International law says this.” We used a whole bunch of different techniques, depending on where we were, what the situation was, and we were able to start taking them out. In one case, we pulled into a factory, and the owners weren’t there. We just loaded up 80 slaves and took off.

Were some of these people part of your network from traveling for 20 years or were these people you were finding on the internet? 

Bruce Ladebu: Through my 40 years of travel, I created a basic intelligence network, comprised of many brave people who were willing to help when I asked them. These people would say, “Hey, we know of two little girls being held in a restaurant. They’re 8 years old.” We’d get tips from them and those kinds of things. Our teams, being very highly trained, go in there and either assist them in the rescue or they show us where to go, and we go in. We have some great relationships that are currently being built with law enforcement and legal systems in other countries. 

bruce ladebu rescued children

I think the reason that people don‘t acknowledge human trafficking is they can’t wrap their mind around the fact that in 2020 there are literally millions upon millions of people enslaved around the world. It‘s happening right here in the U.S. There‘s no country that there‘s not slavery now.

How have the risks impacted your missions? 

Bruce Ladebu: We’ve been under some pretty dire circumstances to the point of getting death threats and even some attempts on our lives — I was actually poisoned in a restaurant, and it took me months to recover. 

Anonymity is so important for the people helping you too. How do you kind of protect everybody?

Bruce Ladebu: We keep their identity secret. If people from a certain town or country are working with us, then we keep them in the background, so that there’s not a direct connection to them. It’s a very serious business, and a lot of our operatives you’ll never hear their name, probably never see their picture. Those people might be living a quiet life or maybe working very quietly with the local police or some type of official. 

How did you train for this? 

Bruce Ladebu: The majority of my training all happened before we created the organization, but since then, I went through two executive protection courses, which entailed hundreds of hours of training. I’ve also done a lot of tactical training over the last 10 years, as well as lots of combatives like Krav Maga, Russian Sistema, and some Filipino Silat. 

If we wanted to join the organization and be basically a rescuer, what would you put us through? What kind of training do you guys have?

Bruce Ladebu: We offer training once or twice a year, consisting of a week-long intensive “tactical humanitarian” training, which is thoroughly vetted invitation only. The training entails a lot of classroom time, teaching everything from modern slavery to the connections, the global markets, and ties to pornography. We have a medical course, and all of our team members have to have a minimum of emergency medical response training. Some of them are already EMTs. We also do a lot of different types of security training, whether we’re armed security or unarmed security. We teach combatives, firearm skills, and we do a lot of scenario training. The way we operate is specific to what country we are in, but we follow the law and work with officials and police. It’s a full seven days, with physical training at 6:30 in the morning and classes until 8 or 9 p.m. We also offer a medical course that’s five days long and carries a national certification. Then, we’re going to be offering a lot of specialized stuff for more advanced skills. Going through our training is a requirement to operate with us, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be on a rescue team. We don’t guarantee that to anybody. There’s just unlimited supplies of very skilled people, but if you take it down to who really got this as a mission in life, then that becomes a much smaller number. Finding the people that either want to be trained or already have the training, that this is what they want to do — that’s what I’m looking for.

children's rescue initiative

(Above) These children were rescued out of a muddy field where they were made to work mixing dirt, water, and straw into mud for bricks. Here they're waiting for team members to help wash the mud off. (Left) This girl was cruelly treated in labor slavery and was liberated and now can live a life of freedom. Photography by Depuhl

Can you elaborate on the organizational structure of the Children’s Rescue Initiative? 

Bruce Ladebu: We formed a nonprofit, and we actually operated under another organization for a few years as I was kind of flying as much under the radar as I could. In 2013, we became officially the Children’s Rescue Initiative and started to grow, but still kind of flying under the radar about a lot of what we did. It’s just been the last maybe two years that we really kind of became very public, carefully using social media so that we don’t compromise anything. We’re also developing relationships with law enforcement and officials. Sometime this spring, I’ll be meeting with some very high-level officials and some heads of police. We have the momentum now. We’ve got people all over the United States that have gone through our training; they’re involved with us — just so many good people that just want to rescue kids. 

In terms of the organization itself, what are the biggest obstacles you guys face?

Bruce Ladebu: Probably just having adequate finances to do what we need to do. Each rescue operation has different costs to it, because we try to be an asset to the country that we’re operating in. Getting there and being able to supply the hotels and transportation and all the food for our teams and those kind of things — that would be probably the primary need for resources. The secondary would be just the connections that we need to get into new countries, so developing those. I think the third challenge is just trying to get the word out about what’s going on with enslaved children and adults.

bruce ladebu edc

The EDC of Bruce Ladebu

(Lethal for U.S. and non-lethal for other territories)

+ Kimber Pepperblaster
+ Fast Strike
+ Fixed Blade Karambit by Rob Walker of Combative Edge
+ SIG Sauer P320
+ Barracuda knife designed by Alessandro Padovani for Wander Tactical

What are you working toward? What would you want to see happen within the near future and far future? 

Bruce Ladebu: I think our goal right now is just to create a greater foundation as an organization to make sure that our structure is solid enough to grow. We want to be an organization that the majority of the money that’s coming in is being used for what we’ve been created for. We want to continue to create relationships in other countries and with other organizations, and we are expanding our cyber-investigations team on a global scale. 

You mentioned writing the book. Is it in a place where you would want to mention that it’s in the works at all?

Bruce Ladebu: Yeah, it’s going to be called No More Bricks, and it talks about our rescues over 10 years along with the viewpoints of slaves themselves, and then some interviews that I did with officials. It’s been quite a journey, and I want to put as much information out there as possible to help these people who are trapped in slavery across the world. Right now, as you and I are talking, countless children are suffering in labor slavery and sex trafficking. 

[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in RECOIL #50. Photos by Kelly Rhoades Photography.]

Bruce Ladebu Bio

Age: 64
Hometown: Titusville, Pennsylvania 
Education: Master’s degree
Family status: Married with four children
Favorite movie: Secondhand Lions
Childhood idol: Jacques Cousteau
Recommended books on human trafficking: Understanding Global Slavery by Kevin Bales
Favorite music: ’70s folk music 

More on Human Trafficking

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