GUCHENG, China – They were the first photos Marip Lu had ever taken of her son, and it broke her heart to think they might be the last.
The little boy was standing in their living room in rural China with his tiny chest puffed out, brown eyes beaming as he watched cartoons on TV. She wanted to remember him this way — smiling, playful, innocent.
Just three years old, he had no idea his mother was facing a heart-wrenching choice that would change their lives: stay with him and the family holding her hostage, or leave him behind and be free.
Six years earlier, Marip Lu had been drugged, kidnapped and trafficked to this place far from her native Myanmar. She had been beaten and abused, forced to “marry” a mentally disabled man, and repeatedly raped, she said.
Now the people organizing her rescue had warned it was too dangerous to take her son. But how could she go without him?
“What if he never has someone to call ‘mama’?” Marip Lu kept asking herself, as the clock ticked down to her escape. “What will they do to him if I’m no longer there?”
As a girl growing up in northern Myanmar, Marip Lu had spent most of her youth in school, in church, and farming her family’s rice fields. But in June 2011, fighting erupted between the army and rebels from an ethnic minority called the Kachin. Marip Lu’s family, who are Kachin, fled to the home of relatives in Laiza, on the Chinese frontier.
The move brought new dangers — from human traffickers who are increasingly luring teenage girls with the false promise of jobs. Once inside China, the girls are kidnapped, then sold to men looking for “brides” for between US$5,000 and US$10,000, according to the Kachin women’s association, Myu Shayi.
Nobody knows how many have been trafficked, because most are never heard from again or too ashamed to report the crime. However, the U.S. State Department said in its latest report that numbers from Myanmar are rising, and Myu Shayi says the average number of known victims from rebel-held Kachin state — a tiny sliver of Myanmar — has jumped from about 35 annually to 50 last year. Myanmar’s government has reported over 1,100 cases in the country since 2010.
Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr, who interviewed 37 victims this year, said those figures “are only the tip of the iceberg.”
The phenomenon is a direct consequence of China’s one-child policy, which grossly skewed the nation’s gender balance for decades before the government ended the practice two years ago. Chinese men, though, still outnumber women by more than 30 million, fueling a huge demand for foreign brides that has sucked in countless girls from neighboring Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.
Although Chinese authorities have broken up trafficking rings, rights advocates say anti-trafficking enforcement is weak, and the practice continues.
The Associated Press pieced together Marip Lu’s story through interviews with her, several family members and the women’s group that orchestrated her rescue. Some details were corroborated by 195 photographs on her cell phone. In an effort to ensure Marip Lu’s safety, AP is not using her full name.
The AP also traveled to the village of Gucheng, in Henan province, to interview the couple Marip Lu accuse of buying her — Li Qinggong and his wife, Xu Ying. Both denied all allegations of abuse, but neither was unable to explain how Marip Lu had ended up in their faraway village, or how she allegedly met and “married” their mentally disabled son, Li Mingming. When the AP visited their home, Li Mingming was only able to mumble incoherently; his foot was chained to a bed, a practice sometimes employed by families in rural China to keep mentally disabled relatives from wandering away.
Still, Li Qinggong insisted that “we did not abduct her or buy her … It’s not true.”
Xu claimed they treated Marip Lu like a daughter, and tearfully accused her of neglecting her son and abandoning them. But she acknowledged knowing Marip Lu wanted to leave and said without explanation that “in some families, they run away after several months — some don’t even last a single month.”
At one point, the couple got into a screaming match as they discussed whether to talk to AP. Li Qinggong hurled his phone at his wife. “You’re asking for trouble,” he told her. “Why don’t you go die?”
“These are all family affairs,” Li Qinggong later said, explaining his reticence. “It’s sad to talk about family affairs, and we don’t bring it up.”
When Marip Lu heard about a job at a barbecue restaurant in Yingjiang, a half-hour’s drive away from Laiza, she had every reason to believe it was real. The offer came from a woman who had lived next to her family for years and attended their church.
After Marip Lu told her parents the news, her mother, Tangbau Hkawn, begged her not to go.
“You’re too young,” she said. “You’ve never traveled out of Myanmar. You’ve never been anywhere alone.”
“Don’t worry mama,” replied Marip Lu, who was just 17 at the time.
When she entered China surreptitiously in September 2011, there were no border guards, no checkpoints. They walked across a shallow creek in broad daylight.
In Yingjiang, after eating a bowl of noodles for breakfast at a local restaurant, Marip Lu began to feel dizzy.
Soon, her vision blurred. Then everything went black.
When Marip Lu regained consciousness, she was slumped on the back of a red motorcycle racing down a highway, a chubby Chinese man holding onto her with one hand.
Rubbing her eyes, she saw rivers and flower parks flashing by. Then things she’d only seen in movies: twinkling skyscrapers with vast crowds walking between them like ants.
When she reached for the phone in her purse, she noticed it was missing along with her Myanmar identification card and the handful of Myanmar kyat — worth only a few U.S. dollars — that she’d brought.
Suddenly, she understood. She’d been tricked, then drugged. And now, she was being trafficked.
Marip Lu began to scream, but she was too weak to resist.
She was handed over to an older man who pulled her aboard a public bus. The night turned into day, then night again, and she was forced into a car that drove into a small village with no paved roads. The car stopped in front of a bland, two-story home made of cement, where a middle-aged couple greeted her excitedly with huge smiles as if she were a long-lost relative.
Li Qinggong, who had dark hair and bushy eyebrows, spoke rapidly and loudly. His wife, who had high cheekbones and a wide face, sat with him, alongside a thickset younger man in his 30s — their son.
The woman offered sunflower seeds, and later, dinner. But Marip Lu was nauseous and frightened. The last thing she wanted to do was eat. She could even not communicate with her captors, who only spoke Chinese.
“Please, dear God,” she prayed, closing her eyes. “Please don’t let anything bad happen to me.”
In the darkness on the bed that first night, Marip Lu felt like a caged animal.
The couple, through hand gestures, had made it clear she was to sleep in the same room as Li Mingming. He had ripped off her clothes, and when she had tried to run they had pushed her back inside and slammed the door shut.
Li Mingming began heaving his naked body against hers, she said, grunting as she recoiled in disgust.
But then, unexpectedly, he stopped. For some reason, he had not raped her, and in the days that followed, she began to understand why: he was mentally disabled in some way.
Sometimes he would mumble or talk to himself, or scream unexpectedly. Sometimes he would stare blankly at the television, his eyes just inches away.
For months, Marip Lu said, her captors never left her alone. The windows upstairs were blocked by dirty white bars. Whenever the couple left, they locked the iron front door — from the outside.
One winter’s night, four weeks into her captivity, Marip Lu said, the couple burst into her bedroom, dragged her into the kitchen and tore off her clothes.
As she lay curled in a ball on the hard marble floor, they kicked and slapped and cursed her. Li Qinggong then poured buckets of ice water over her shivering body.
When the mother sat down, Marip Lu crawled forward and wrapped her arms around her legs.
“Please don’t do this!” she begged in Kachin — a language only she understood. “Oh God! What did I do wrong?”
The next night, the couple barged in again as she slept, according to Marip Lu. This time, they forced her into their bedroom. As Xu sat in a chair barking instructions, Li Qinggong pushed Marip Lu onto the bed and raped her repeatedly, she said. The couple later insisted she had never been raped.
When Marip Lu retreated, shaking with fear, she found her “husband” hiding in their room under a blanket like a child. It was the same thing he did when his parents fought.
As the weeks turned into months, then years, she began following a grim routine. During the day, they made her wash clothes, clean the house and cook — and beat her if she did not. At night, the couple would often drag their “daughter” into their room — or their son’s — and rape her as she cried, she said.
They called her Baobei — “baby.”
One day, Marip Lu looked into the mirror at several bright red imprints on her cheeks where she had been slapped. It was hard to recognize the girl looking back.
She wanted more than anything to escape, but there was nowhere to run. The sheer vastness of China, combined with the fact that she could not speak Chinese, had created the perfect prison. And even if she could get out, she had no money and no way to contact home.
The hardest part was the loneliness.
Marip Lu wanted to tell someone what was happening, but there was nobody to talk to. The first time she tried to wave down a neighbor, she said, Xu yanked her away by the wrist and cursed them both. Even those who entered their house tried to avoid making eye contact.
The neighbors may not have suspected anything was wrong. Foreign brides are not uncommon in rural China, and many women come voluntarily. Marriages are also sometimes seen as transactional events in a country where the traditional practice of paying dowries still exists.
Two years after her arrival, Marip Lu seemed to fall ill. She began throwing up each morning, and for the first time, Xu took her to a clinic.
She was five weeks pregnant.
Xu was overjoyed. But Marip Lu felt numb. The new life inside her belly was the product of the hell in which she existed.
The rape and the beatings came to a halt. Then, on Sept. 23, 2013, Marip Lu gave birth to a healthy boy. She called him Erzi, which means son.
The first time she looked into his eyes, she was overwhelmed by something she had not felt in a long time: love.
She melted when she saw his pouting lips smile involuntarily as he slept. Even his cries were soothing.
Although Marip Lu insists Li Qinggong is the father, she said the couple referred to the boy as their “grandson,” proudly telling everyone in their village he belonged to their son and their “daughter-in-law.” In conversations with the AP, Li Qinggong never replied to the question of whether he was the father.
When the beatings and the rape resumed months later, Marip Lu felt different. The baby was a profound source of comfort; she no longer felt alone.
The day her son turned one, Xu took her and the boy to a photo studio for a souvenir of the moment. The glossy image they received was embossed with a tiny smiley face and a digital slogan written in English: “Happy Day.”
Marip Lu had all but given up on ever returning home when she spotted something strange in the trash: an old, beat-up cell phone.
It was missing a SIM card. But she knew how to get one: by skimming cash from the money the couple gave her to buy food.
It took several weeks. When she inserted the card, she was shocked. It worked.
Immediately, she tried to dial friends or family in Myanmar. But nothing went through.
She began calling numbers at random in Yunnan, a province that borders Myanmar. The idea was simple: try to reach anyone who spoke Kachin.
For weeks she dialed in secret, again and again, number after number. Until one day a woman answered in Kachin — a language she had not spoken or heard in years.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
Marip Lu said she was working in China and had lost contact with her family back home.
“I’m desperate to speak to them,” she said. “Can you help?”
Miraculously, the woman lived in Yingjiang, the same place Marip Lu had been kidnapped from four years before. Even more stunning: one of the woman’s relatives was planning to make her first trip to Myanmar — to Laiza for a wedding.
Marip Lu passed on her brother-in-law’s address, and when the woman crossed the border she knocked on his door.
Numbers were exchanged. And several days later, Marip Lu made a call she thought she’d never be able to make again.
“Marip Lu?” her mother asked.
“Yes, mama. Yes,” she said, and wept into the phone.
In Laiza, Myu Shayi, the women’s association affiliated with the rebel administration, immediately took up the case.
“I want you to be patient,” a case worker named Ja Ring told Marip Lu by phone. “We will get you out as soon we can.”
For months, the two stayed in touch, agreeing that only Marip Lu would call. Then Xu discovered the phone.
“Who are you calling? You have no friends here,” she screamed, her face red with anger as she snatched it away. “You should not be talking to anyone. Your family is here.”
The loss turned out to be a blessing. With money she got to celebrate her son’s second birthday in 2015, and more skimmed cash, Marip Lu secretly purchased a low-cost, Chinese-built smartphone.
Another woman from Myu Shayi told her to install the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat. The woman, Hkawn Shawng, then asked her to send a message by clicking on an icon that looked like a balloon.
When Marip Lu pressed “send,” a digital map appeared on Hkawn Shawng’s phone with a red flag on it. For the first time, it indicated precisely where she was — a house about 2,700 kilometers from Laiza.
Following protocol, Hkawn Shawng wrote a letter to Chinese authorities requesting a rescue.
Then they waited, for months.
Marip Lu was outside her home with her son when a pair of police cars suddenly pulled up months later, red and blue lights flashing. One of the officers turned and asked: “Are you Marip Lu? Is that your name?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” she said, barely able to contain herself.
When the officers said they were taking her down to the police station, Li Qinggong tried to intervene.
“We take good care of her in this house. She’s happy,” he said, smiling meekly. “Just look around, do you see any problem here?”
Marip Lu, frozen, dared not say a word. But when the police took her away, she told them everything.
“Someone sold me to this Chinese family,” she said. “I’m terrified of these people.”
The officers recorded her testimony solemnly. Then they took her photograph.
“Do you want to go home?” one asked.
“Of course,” Marip Lu pleaded. “Very much.”
But hours later, inexplicably, they called the Chinese family to come pick her up. They said they would come back to get her when they received orders from their bosses after the Chinese New Year holiday.
“Don’t be afraid,” one of them said. And “don’t be in a hurry … Don’t you know there is war in Myanmar? Aren’t you worried about that?”
The next day, Marip Lu called Hkawn Shawng in tears.
“Why didn’t they send me home?” she said, her voice trembling. “When are you going to rescue me? Am I going to die here?”
“You must stay strong,” Hkawn Shawng replied. “Keep praying to God … we will get you out.”
A few weeks later, Hkawn Shawng received a letter from the police. It claimed Marip Lu had told them she did not want to return.
It was unclear what had happened, but Hkawn Shawng speculated police had either been bought off, or didn’t care. Police in Gucheng declined to speak to AP about the case when contacted by phone.
There was a Plan B. Myu Shayi had surreptitious networks of its own in China that rescue trafficked girls. Hkawn Shawng would send a driver, but Marip Lu would have to get as far away from her house as she could first, to ensure their vehicle was not traced or followed.
“And my son?” Marip Lu asked.
Hkawn Shawng said she could only be rescued alone. The boy was a Chinese citizen, and spiriting him out of the country would be interpreted by Chinese authorities as one thing only: kidnapping.
By now, the couple was so confident Marip Lu would not — or could not — leave, they let her drive their three-wheeled vehicle to the market alone. And when they discovered her new white phone, they shrugged, and let her keep it.
On Wednesday, May 3, 2017, Marip Lu walked her son home from school at 11 a.m., holding his hand just as she always did.
Once there, she packed a small pink bag with two changes of clothes, a little bit of money, and several laminated photos of her son.
He stood beside her, pulling at her leg.
“Mama! Mama!” he said. “I’m hungry.”
Marip Lu told him to go to the kitchen and wait for lunch, but the boy said he did not want to go alone.
“Go on,” she said. “Be a good boy. Mama needs to finish washing the clothes.”
As the boy walked away, he turned back several times, his sad eyes pleading for her to follow. But as soon as he was out of sight, Marip Lu ran down to the garage, where she cranked up the family’s motorcycle.
Xu was in another room at the time, with her elderly mother.
Marip Lu’s eyes welled with tears.
She dared not say bye to her son, or hug him one last time. She knew that if she did, she would never be able to leave.
Half an hour later, she reached a nearby town. She abandoned the motorcycle in an alley, and messaged her GPS location to a driver sent by Myu Shayi who was supposed to pick her up.
Hours later, she saw a van with a man standing outside it in a white shirt.
“Hurry up! Hurry up! Hurry up!”
Marip Lu began to run.
“Quick! Get in!”
Once inside, Marip Lu took the SIM card out of her phone, rolled down the window and threw it into the wind.
Over the next several days, Marip Lu took 45 photos out the window as they traveled toward the Myanmar border: of bridges and skyscrapers and a Ferris wheel along the endless highways.
Eventually, the van cut through fields of tall sugarcane, then suddenly turned onto a dirt road.
It was Myanmar. Marip Lu was home.
When her family saw her for the first time, there were tears, hugs, and disbelief. It was as if their daughter had returned from the dead.
But they knew the innocent girl who left Myanmar six years earlier would never came back.
“She talks at night when she sleeps now,” her mother, Tangbau Hkawn, says forlornly. “Sometimes she screams. Sometimes she shouts things like ‘don’t touch me!'”
When the Associated Press interviewed Marip Lu in a rebel-controlled part of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, a year after her escape, she could not hide her hatred for the family she said held her for so long.
“I want them to know what it feels like,” she says through gritted teeth. “They destroyed my life.”
In June, though, Marip Lu was overcome by the desire to contact her son. To do so, she had to muster the courage to call Li Qinggong.
At first, nobody answered, but then a familiar voice called back.
Li Qinggong refused to let her speak to the boy, she said, and asked if she had told the AP what happened in their home. Later, she sent several photos of herself because “I wanted (my son) to know he has a mother somewhere.”
It’s unclear if the boy ever saw them. Neither Li Qinggong nor Xu answered repeated calls to their mobile phones from AP.
More than anything else, Marip Lu says she wants to get her son back.
But Hkawn Shawng, the woman who helped engineer her rescue, says that is all but impossible. Her organization has spearheaded the return more than 200 women to Myanmar since 2011.
All those with children were forced to leave them behind.
Pitman and Htusan reported from Laiza, Myanmar. AP photographer Han Guan Ng in Gucheng and reporter Yanan Wang and researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.