MCGOWN RE­LIVES HELL

Hostage speaks for first time since his re­lease

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE - LINDILE SI­FILE lindile.si­file@inl.co.za @lindile­si­file

STEPHEN McGown, the South African held hostage by al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants in a Mali desert for al­most six years, is still an­gry at his cap­tors for not re­leas­ing him to at­tend his mother’s fu­neral. She died in May. McGown made his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance at the Gift of the Givers of­fices in Joburg yes­ter­day ac­com­pa­nied by his father Mal­colm, wife Catherine and sis­ter Leigh-Anne.

McGown re­turned to the coun­try last week, spark­ing spec­u­la­tion about whether the gov­ern­ment paid a ran­som to se­cure his re­lease.

Re­liv­ing his six-year or­deal, a mostly jovial McGown said he had a lot to catch up on and was learn­ing some­thing new ev­ery day.

At the press con­fer­ence, the former banker learnt for the first time that mu­si­cians Ge­orge Michael and David Bowie had died.

McGown said all he wished for on his re­turn was to be re­united with his fam­ily. The fact that his mother was not there to welcome him had hurt him deeply.

“I don’t want to har­bour re­sent­ment, but I’m an­gry that I wasn’t re­leased to be with my mother or to go to her fu­neral. I will for­give them be­cause I don’t want to carry the bur­den,” he said.

Ab­ducted with Swedish na­tional Jo­han Gustafs­son and Dutch­man Sjaak Ri­jke at a ho­tel in Tim­buktu in 2011, McGown re­vealed that they were kept mostly in the desert, ex­posed to the va­garies of the weather. McGown was on a mo­tor­bike road trip in Tim­buktu.

He re­vealed that al­though born a Chris­tian, he con­verted to Is­lam dur­ing his cap­tiv­ity of his own vo­li­tion. The fresh-look­ing man, still sport­ing a long beard, said his re­li­gion and reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ex­er­cises kept his health and spir­its up.

“I didn’t want to come home an­gry. I wanted to come here a bet­ter per­son. I used the ex­er­cises as a re­lief and to for­get what was hap­pen­ing around me. I was wor­ried about my health a lot, and some­times these ex­er­cises would be can­celled for no rea­son. We just had to toe the line and do what we were told.”

He and the other two pris­on­ers were moved be­tween nine or 10 camps dur­ing their or­deal. The camps were of­ten heav­ily guarded and in se­cluded places. The guards would ro­tate monthly to avoid get­ting fa­mil­iar with the pris­on­ers.

McGown was the last of the three pris­on­ers to be re­leased.

He said he be­lieved there could be more pris­ons around Mali.

“I never saw them, but our cap­tors would men­tion them.”

He said his kid­nap­ping still wor­ried him as he thought that Mus­lims were friendly and wel­com­ing peo­ple to for­eign guests.

“I still don’t know why it hap­pened or whether it’s be­cause they caught me with a Bri­tish pass­port,” said McGown.

He said he ini­tially found it dif­fi­cult to set­tle down and the first three months were hor­rific as he did not know if he’d be alive the next day.

“They would swear at us, but the treat­ment got bet­ter when I con­verted to Is­lam.

“The name-call­ing stopped and they would wash my clothes and give me the good meat from the an­i­mals they had slaugh­tered. Things changed dras­ti­cally. We were well looked af­ter but there was al­ways un­cer­tainty.

“I’ve learnt a lot from Is­lam. Its laws are strict and re­quire a strict char­ac­ter. It has re­moved me from the cap­i­tal­ist way of think­ing. I’m more about hu­mankind now,” he said.

Gift of the Givers co-or­di­nated his re­lease. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s chief Im­tiaz Sooli­man said the mil­i­tants ini­tially wanted €10 mil­lion for the re­lease of each prisoner.

“I had to tell them that my or­gan­i­sa­tion does not pay any­body money,” Sooli­man said.

Mo­hamed Ye­hia Dicko from the or­gan­i­sa­tion was the main ne­go­tia­tor with the mil­i­tants. He had to travel to Mali nine times to pass mes­sages be­tween them and the or­gan­i­sa­tion. He was also in­stru­men­tal in get­ting McGown videos from Mali to prove to his fam­ily that he was alive.

“In some cases, the meet­ings sched­uled for Mon­day would only take place days later be­cause of se­cu­rity checks I had to go through. I was the only per­son they could deal with be­cause I spoke their lan­guage,” said Dicko, who is from Mali.

He also con­firmed that no money was ex­changed be­tween them and the mil­i­tants.

PIC­TURE: MATTHEWS BALOYI

JOVIAL MOOD: Mal­colm McGown, father of Stephen McGown, and his wife Catherine share a light mo­ment dur­ing a press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day. Stephen, who was held hostage by mil­i­tants in a Mali desert for al­most six years, is still an­gry at his cap­tors for fail­ing to re­lease him to at­tend his mother’s fu­neral.

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