t is a scenario with which South Africans are becoming all too familiar: countrymen taken hostage while on holiday or working in trouble hot spots.
The latest nightmare took place this weekend when three South Africans were taken hostage after gunmen stormed the Hotel Byblos in Sevare, northern Mali, at about 7am on Friday.
Two South Africans working as contractors for the UN, one Russian and one Ukrainian, walked out alive from the hotel yesterday after a predawn raid by members of the Malian paramilitary.
But Roelof ( Jaco) Janse van Rensburg – who was part of the UN peacekeeping mission Minusma – died in the siege, his family confirmed to Eyewitness News yesterday afternoon.
Van Rensburg’s brother-in-law Cobus Smal told Eyewitness News the father of four had sent his wife in Gauteng WhatsApp messages from his hotel room and had even spoken to her on the phone. But his battery died and they lost communication.
Smal said Van Rensburg told his wife he was scared and could hear the gunfire from his hotel room where he was hiding. It is not known when he was killed.
Imtiaz Sooliman, head of humanitarian agency Gift of the Givers, told Eyewitness News the two South Africans who had survived the siege were among a group of four UN contractors.
The BBC reported that at least 12 people had been killed in the siege, including five Malian soldiers and three gunmen. Seven terrorists were arrested.
Minusma said the gunmen’s initial target had been a Malian military site. “The attackers, who were repulsed by the Malian forces, then holed up in a hotel,” the mission said in a statement.
The news that at least two of the three hostages had escaped alive was bittersweet for South Africans, who still remember the death of Pierre Korkie (56).
Korkie, a Bloemfontein teacher who had been teaching children in Yemen, was taken hostage by al-Qaeda with his wife, Yolande, in May 2013.
Yolande Korkie was freed in January last year, but Pierre was killed when US Special Forces commandos stormed the hideout where he was being held in an attempt to rescue US photojournalist Luke Somers in December last year.
Korkie – who was killed by his captors – was due to have been released the next day.
Meanwhile, the family of another South African hostage, Stephen McGowan of Johannesburg, are still anxiously waiting for news about him.
McGowan (39) was kidnapped by al-Qaeda militants from a hotel restaurant in Timbuktu, Mali, on November 25 2011, the day he arrived in the country. A German tourist was shot when he resisted.
McGowan and two friends, Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Dutchman Sjaak Rijke, had been on a motorcycle tour through Europe and Africa, and were heading to South Africa.
Rijke was rescued by French forces in April. McGowan and Gustafsson were not with him when the French forces attacked.
In a video released by a Mauritanian news agency in June, a bearded McGowan and Gustafsson can be seen in traditional Muslim robes sitting under a tree while being watched over by three masked men dressed in black.
McGowan delivered a message to South Africa: “I hope that something can be done. I hope that a negotiation can be brokered and my release can be soon. I have a message for my family, I thank you all for everything that you’ve been doing to help.”
The video reignited attempts by the Gift of the Givers to try to secure the release of the men.
The agency sent a negotiator to Mali last month in an attempt to make contact with their kidnappers.
Sooliman told South African media organisations three weeks ago that the release of the video had persuaded him that the captors were potentially looking for someone with whom to negotiate and he launched an initiative to secure McGowan’s release.
McGowan’s father, Malcolm, approached Sooliman last year after he had negotiated Yolande Korkie’s release.
Sooliman said his Malian negotiator, Yehia Dicko, had flown to Mali on July 9. He had met “influential people” in Bamako and then travelled to Gao in northern Mali, where he had met “strategic people” before returning to South Africa this month.
Gift of the Givers also circulated two videos in west and north Africa appealing to the captors to make contact with Yehia.
Sooliman said the videos had been circulated in such a wide area because he believed the members of the group holding the two men come from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and other parts of west Africa.
Sooliman told eNCA they were also trying to secure Gustafsson’s release because “we’re a humanitarian organisation and to us it doesn’t matter where an individual is from.
“We haven’t dealt with non-South Africans before ... and it occurred to me that there were seven people in this group; five are out. If Stephen gets out, only one man will be left. And no one seems to be talking about him. I felt sad to be leaving a man behind.”