The team – Todd Pitman, Esther Htusan and Jerry Harmer – had gone to Kachin state to report on the war between Kachin rebels and Myanmar’s army. Near the end of their trip, they decided to look into a story Htusan wanted to do on bride trafficking. The lead was vague and the team wasn’t sure where it would take them.
But then, at a refugee camp, they met Marip Lu. And they knew immediately this was a story that had to be told.
The harrowing tale of a woman who was kidnapped, held in captivity, raped and then forced to make the choice between freedom and her child is the Beat of the Week.
Marip Lu’s recollections were detailed, and vivid. She recalled how she was tricked, drugged and taken to China, to be married to a couple’s mentally disabled son; how the father raped her repeatedly; how she gave birth to a beloved son; how she plotted to escape after six years, but had to leave her son behind. She shared nearly 200 photos that were on her phone.
“These photos backed up her story – she had photos of her son, the house she lived in – with a partial address on a wall of it, and even the car she escaped in,” said Pitman, a Bangkok-based enterprise writer. “This was important, because they were clues I knew we could follow up on later to dig further.”
The reporters had little time to spend with Marip Lu – just an afternoon and a morning, and then they had to leave. They interviewed her in her house in a refugee camp, a bamboo/wood makeshift hut. Her parents were not pleased that she was telling her story to these visiting journalists, but Marip Lu wanted to talk. When it came to the details of her rape and abuse, she walked away with Htusan, the Yangon correspondent, and they spoke privately.
Back at their desks, they called Marip Lu many times over the following months. Often, her phone was not working; networks could be downed by heavy rain or lack of electricity to charge phones. But over time, the woman opened up, offering more and more detail with each call.
Most of the story was done when they asked her if they could visit the family in China. The issue was security or her son. Could it endanger him? “We wanted to give Marip Lu control over that,” Pitman said. In the end, she agreed.
Shanshan Wang, a Beijing news assistant, and reporter Yanan Wang scoured Google Maps and cold-called shops and government offices to nail down where the family lived. Shanshan Wang also would seek comment from police and local government, and serve as the main AP contact with Marip Lu after Beijing photographer Han Guan Ng and videojournalist Dake Kang met with the family. Again and again, she would reassure Marip Lu that the AP was not automatically assuming that the family was telling the truth – that the reporters were merely getting both sides of the story.
That meeting was difficult. The father, Li Qinggong, clearly had a temper and was not interested in speaking to the AP. The reporters persisted.
At one point, the couple argued about whether they should talk to AP. Li Qinggong started cursing at his wife, Xu.
“If you want to talk, why don’t you just go outside?” Li shouted. “You’re really doing this for nothing. You’re asking for trouble. Why don’t you go die?”
“I don’t want to die!” his wife yelled back, before Li chucked his smartphone at her to stop her from talking.
Li denied he had raped Marip Lu. He displayed WeChat messages that showed that Marip Lu had recently been in touch, exchanging pleasantries and photos.
“We didn’t know what to make of it and thought it may kill the whole story,” Pittman recalled. “Was she lying to us?”
They went back to Marip Lu, and her story made sense: She contacted the family because she desperately wanted to speak to her son.
The family in China could not explain: How did a young girl from Myanmar end up in their village to marry their mentally disabled son?
“Ultimately, we believed Marip Lu because so many of her details were corroborated – by her mother, father, her photos, and the women’s group people we interviewed in Laiza that rescued her,” Pitman said. “The family in China, meanwhile, did not really want to speak, expressed great moments of anger, and crucially, could not explain the most fundamental key of the story: How did a young girl from Myanmar end up thousands of miles away in their village to marry their mentally disabled son?”
“Ultimately, we believed Marip Lu because so many of her details were corroborated.”
Todd Pitman, global enterprise reporter, Bangkok
Illustrating the story presented other challenges. Harmer, the Bangkok video editor, raced to shoot Marip Lu in just a few hours and to do it in a way that did not give away her identity, out of concern for her safety. The same standard was set for Marip Lu’s photos shot by Htusan, and no pictures of her son were used. Meanwhile, Han Guan Ng was able to make revealing photos of the Li family at their home in China.
Readers were rapt; they spent an average of 2½ minutes reading the story, by far the most engagement of any AP story that day.
But contacted by the AP, Marip Lu said nothing had changed. She had not heard from Li Quinggong or anyone else.
“I dream of my son every night,” she said, “I miss him very much.”
For a powerful story, reported and told with great sensitivity, Pitman, Htusan, Harmer, Ng, Kang, Shanshan Wang and Yanan Wang share this week’s Beat of the Week.