MCGOWN RELIVES HELL
Hostage speaks for first time since his release
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.
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.