GUCHENG, CHINA - They were the first photos Marip Lu had ever taken of her son. It broke her heart to think they might also be the last.
The 3-year-old was standing in their living room in the rural Chinese village of Gucheng, brown eyes beaming as he watched cartoons on TV. He had no idea she was facing a heart-wrenching choice: stay with him and the family that was holding her hostage, or leave him behind and be free.
Six years earlier, Marip Lu said, she had been drugged, kidnapped and trafficked to Henan province, far from her native Myanmar. She had been beaten, forced to “marry” a mentally disabled man and repeatedly raped — allegations her captors deny.
Marip Lu is among dozens of women from her Myanmar state alone to be trafficked to China. The Myu Shayi women’s group says the average number of known victims from Kachin state 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 workers say the phenomenon, known as “bride trafficking,” is a direct consequence of the country’s former one-child policy, which skewed the nation’s gender balance for decades. Today, there are over 30 million more men than women.
The Associated Press pieced together Marip Lu’s story through interviews with her, family members, the group that orchestrated her rescue, and the couple accused of holding her.
While the couple insisted she was neither abused nor raped, they were unable to explain how she ended up in their home or how she allegedly met and “married” their mentally disabled son.
“It’s sad to talk about family affairs, and we don’t bring it up,” said the father, Li Qinggong.
Marip Lu said she was lured into China from the Myanmar town of Laiza after friends said she could get a job at a restaurant in nearby Yingjiang. She was drugged while eating breakfast one morning.
When she regained consciousness, she was racing down a highway slumped on the back of a motorcycle.
She was put on a bus. Then a taxi deposited her at a house where a middle-aged couple greeted her excitedly. The couple, Li Qinggong and his wife, Xu Ying, sat beside their son, a man in his 30s named Li Mingming.
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.
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. They beat her and cursed her and forced her to do housework.
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 they didn’t understand. “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 woman 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. 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. 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 she insists Li Qinggong was the father, the couple referred to the newborn as their “grandson.” In conversations with the AP, Li Qinggong never answered the question of whether he was the father.
Marip Lu loved the boy more than she ever thought possible. But she was also desperate to escape.
One day she found a beat-up cell phone in the trash. First she tried, secretly and unsuccessfully, to call her family. Then she began dialing numbers at random in Yunnan, a province that borders Myanmar.
Eventually, a woman answered in Kachin — a language she had not heard in years. She lived in Yingjiang, and one of her relatives was about to travel to Laiza.
Marip Lu passed on her brother-in-law’s address, and the woman knocked on his door.
Several days later, Marip Lu called home for the first time, weeping into the phone.
In Laiza, Myu Shayi took up her case. An official named Hkawn Shawng told Marip Lu to install the Chinese messaging app WeChat, which allowed them to access a digital map indicating exactly where she was.
Hkawn Shawng wrote a letter to Chinese authorities requesting a rescue.
Months later, a pair of police cars pulled up beside Marip Lu’s house in Gucheng, and took her to a station where she recounted her story. After several hours, though, they called the Chinese family to get her, saying they would come for her later.
It was unclear what happened, but Hkawn Shawng speculated police had either been bought off, or didn’t care. The police declined to speak to AP about the case.
Still, there was a Plan B: Myu Shayi would send somebody to pick her up.
On May 3, 2017, Marip Lu told her son to go to the kitchen. When he did, she ran to a motorcycle owned by the family, as her eyes welled with tears.
She drove to a nearby town, then messaged her GPS location to Myu Shayi’s driver. She spotted a man standing beside a van, and began to run.
“Quick! Get in!” the man said.
After traveling for days, they turned onto a dirt road.
It was Myanmar. Marip Lu was home.
When AP interviewed her, a year after her escape, she could not hide her hatred for the family that held her for so long.
But in June, overcome by a desire to speak to her son, she contacted Li Qinggong. He refused to let her speak to the boy, she said, and asked if she had told the AP what had happened.
Marip Lu wants, more than anything else, to get her boy back.
But Hkawn Shawng, the woman who helped engineer her rescue, says that is all but impossible. Her organization has spearheaded the return of more than 200 women to Myanmar since 2011.
All those with children were forced to leave them behind.