AT THE age of 20, Zhang Chunli had never set foot outside Zhongjiang, the nearest town to her small village in China's western Sichuan province. So when the man she had just started dating offered to take her for a weekend trip to his home town, she jumped at the chance.
Chen Changhua was good-looking and making a good living removing warts from farmers' feet.
Her "boyfriend" and his friends tricked Ms Zhang all the way to Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, thousands of kilometres to the north. Sensing something was not right, Ms Zhang demanded to be taken back, but the men claimed to have run out of money.
Mr Chen took her to a farmer's family in a desert village, supposedly to borrow money. "When Chen readied himself to go, I got up, too. But the family pushed me down. I didn't understand what they were saying. Then the hard truth hit me: I was sold for 3600 yuan," she said.
Every year, thousands of Chinese women are kidnapped and sold to farmers as their wives. The Chinese Government has launched numerous campaigns against human trafficking, featuring highly publicised arrests and heavy sentences against the kidnappers. But despite wave after wave of these campaigns, the problem still thrives in rural China, causing untold misery and pain for the victims and their families.
"The 32 months was hell," Ms Zhang said, wiping tears from her face as she sat in her bare, small flat in Zhongjian. On the first night, Bai Jinquan, her buyer, climbed into her bed. "He was so dirty, smelly and old — I never knew how old he was, too old for me anyway. I was scared to death."
She fought him off. The next day, Ms Zhang realised that she had become a prisoner. She was followed everywhere. She begged to be freed. That night, she attempted to escape but was soon caught. Mr Bai dragged her back by her feet, beat her unconscious, then raped her.
"I dreaded night-time when Bai came up to me, his dirty hands pulling off my trousers," she said, eyes looking down at her tea. She gave up resisting his daily demands only after he threatened to sell her off: she had heard stories of bought wives being shared by several brothers.
Desperately missing home, Ms Zhang wrote many letters. Mr Bai kept them all save the one asking her mother to come and help after she became pregnant.
The official Xinhua news agency reported that between 2001 to 2003, police rescued 42,215 kidnapped women and children.
Security guard turned private detective Zhu Wenguang said: "Fellow villagers laugh at a man without a wife. But he if buys one, they don't see anything wrong."
Mr Zhu, 44, is known as Zorro. He is short, with a pot belly, and is an unlikely hero who has rescued more than 160 women, including Ms Zhang.
At her mother's request, he came to set the young woman free with a van and three local policemen. Angry villagers mobbed the van, shouting: "Don't let the woman go!"
Mr Bai hit Mr Zhu with an iron rod. Staying calm, Mr Zhu persuaded Mr Bai to get into the vehicle, on the pretence of solving the dispute at the local government. Mr Bai and his brother were lured to the police station where they were arrested for hitting a policeman, but were later discharged. Ms Zhang got away.
Mr Zhu said more than 90 per cent of the women he rescued were happy to return with him. Those who chose to stay with their captor said it was because they couldn't tear themselves away from their children.
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