‘I just tried to stay pos­i­tive’

Af­ter be­ing kid­napped by al-Qaeda mil­i­tants in Mali six years ago, Sephen McGown fi­nally re­turns home

CityPress - - News - POLOKO TAU poloko.tau@city­press.co.za

For a man who spent al­most six years in cap­tiv­ity in the vast desert of Mali, Stephen McGown this week ap­peared com­posed as he shared his nervewrack­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. The 42-year-old was kid­napped by al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants while on hol­i­day in Mali in Novem­ber 2011, as were Dutch­man Sjaak Ri­jke and Swede na­tional Jo­han Gustafs­son.

He said their early months in de­ten­tion were the most dif­fi­cult be­cause the three had to share one blan­ket, and their hands and an­kles were in hand­cuffs.

One of his first har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in the camp, he said, was “when they slaugh­tered a goat and I was like, ‘ok, that could be me next’”.

“The dif­fi­cult part was that you don’t have in­for­ma­tion ... no­body is able to tell you any­thing. Also, not hav­ing any books in English, and not know­ing Ara­bic and French was dif­fi­cult.

“I had many re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to come home to. I promised I would be home to pick up my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, but my six months be­came six years,” he said, adding that, as a bird-watch­ing en­thu­si­ast, he saw swallows mi­grate back and forth six times across the Sa­hara Desert.

“I just stayed pos­i­tive ... you’re never sure when it’s go­ing come to an end. I didn’t want to come back home a mess. I did my best to see the best in a bad sit­u­a­tion. You try to find a rou­tine – you ex­er­cise, build things and try to make con­ver­sa­tion, make friends, with the Mu­jahideen [guer­rilla fight­ers in Is­lamic coun­tries].”

He said he got used to liv­ing in a hut he built him­self with grass and sticks, but it didn’t keep the ice-cold and blus­ter­ing win­ter winds at bay. When it rained in sum­mer, they ex­pe­ri­enced “the most in­cred­i­ble thun­der­storms”, which meant they spent chilly and wet nights cov­ered in sand.

McGown left South Africa a Chris­tian and re­turned a Mus­lim. He said he was not forced by his cap­tors to adopt Is­lam, but ad­mit­ted things changed dra­mat­i­cally.

“Once con­verted, the guys wanted to wash your clothes by the river beds. Even when you were a prisoner, they would give you good meat … I see many good things in Is­lam, which I like, but I also see many things that don’t make sense to me. So I will con­tinue to read and find out more about it,” he said, adding that he was al­ways put in his place if he took it too far and would be re­minded that he was a prisoner.

He said one of his cap­tors once told him he was for­tu­nate to be kid­napped rather than kept in jail. He said he reck­oned that, in jail, he prob­a­bly could have had ac­cess to books in his lan­guage, seen his fam­ily and used the tele­phone in­stead of sit­ting out­side in thun­der­storms.

He added that jail would have been bet­ter be­cause he would have at least known his sen­tence and the amount of time he would spend be­hind bars.

“I was in the dark, I had no idea when this would come to an end, or how my fam­ily was.”

He said he saw Ri­jke freed in 2015. Gustafs­son was re­leased in June. He left with­out say­ing good­bye. McGown was later told that he could be next, but it was hard to be­lieve.

“I’d heard this many times be­fore,” he said.

All of a sud­den, on June 21, he was or­dered to col­lect his things be­cause he was leav­ing. Days later, af­ter a long drive, he could not be­lieve it when the driver told him: “You are free ... if you don’t be­lieve me, you can walk.”

An­other car came along and he jumped into it. When they got onto the tat­tered road lead­ing to the city of Gao, he re­alised his free­dom was im­mi­nent.

“I re­alised that, if they tried to take me back, I would have jumped out of the car and run,” he said.

There have been spec­u­la­tions and var­i­ous re­ports re­gard­ing a price tag for his free­dom. The South African govern­ment has flatly de­nied that a ran­som was paid for his re­lease.

The Gift of the Givers, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that played a piv­otal role in ne­go­ti­at­ing his free­dom, said it had made it clear to his cap­tors that they would not get any money. Its head, Dr Im­tiaz Sooli­man, con­firmed that there had been ran­som de­mands that started at €10 mil­lion (R159 mil­lion) and dropped to €4 mil­lion.

Sooli­man said they pleaded for com­pas­sion­ate re­lease on the grounds that McGown’s mother was gravely ill. She died two months be­fore he was freed. Sooli­man said he told the mil­i­tants that the or­gan­i­sa­tion could meet their other de­mand of a prisoner ex­change.

He said he was then told he needed to in­volve govern­ment. “They told me: ‘Your govern­ment must talk to the Mali govern­ment; your state se­cu­rity must to talk to Mali state se­cu­rity, get em­bassies in­volved, make ar­range­ments for pass­ports ... To make sure we’ve cut our end of the bar­gain, what­ever the bar­gain is, you may have to send a heli­copter to fetch him.’”

For McGown’s fa­ther, Mal­colm, it did not matter how his son was re­leased.

“When I spoke to govern­ment, I said we heard all sorts of things – prisoner swaps, money – I don’t want to know, you just put my son next to me, that’s all I want.”

Now that he is home and a free man, McGown said he was con­sid­er­ing join­ing the fam­ily busi­ness and al­low­ing his fa­ther to re­tire.

PHOTO: REUTERS / SIPHIWE SIBEKO

FREE Stephen McGown speaks to the me­dia in Johannesburg on Thurs­day

PHOTO: FACE­BOOK

CAP­TIVE Stephen McGown was taken hostage with two oth­ers by al-Qaeda mil­i­tants in Tim­buktu, north­ern Mali, in 2011

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