Smil­ing, charm­ing McGown takes a break

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - LINDILE SIFILE

AF­TER be­ing held cap­tive by al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants in the desert of Mali for nearly six years, freed hostage Stephen McGown is fi­nally on a well-de­served hol­i­day.

Yes­ter­day, Gift of the Givers chief ex­ec­u­tive Im­tiaz Sooli­man con­firmed that McGown had left Johannesburg in the morn­ing with his wife, Cather­ine, for an unknown des­ti­na­tion. This was to re­group as a fam­ily, away from the pub­lic and me­dia spot­light. “He is al­ready mak­ing progress go­ing for­ward,” said Sooli­man. “They need to spend time to­gether and we want to give them space and sup­port.

“He needs time to think about what has hap­pened in the last six years and he also has plans to join his fa­ther’s busi­ness.

“We will be there for him and his fam­ily. We – the or­gan­i­sa­tion – are friends with the McGowns for life.”

McGown, sport­ing a heavy beard and long hair, made his first pub­lic ap­pear­ance af­ter com­ing home nearly two weeks ago, at a press con­fer­ence in Johannesburg on Thurs­day. He ini­tially ap­peared ner­vous as he walked into the me­dia brief­ing with his fa­ther, Mal­colm, and Cather­ine along­side him. But he flashed a smile when jour­nal­ists be­gan ap­plaud­ing him. He re­vealed how he was still bat­tling to adapt to life since his re­turn to South Africa.

“A lot has changed. I find it very cold here. I’m still in the dark about many things. Some­times, I find my­self go­ing through news on the in­ter­net just to learn about things.

“I wasn’t even aware that Ge­orge Michael and David Bowie had died. There is still a lot that I still need to take in but it will get bet­ter.”

Dis­cov­er­ing his mother, Bev­erly, had died just two months be­fore his re­lease, was dif­fi­cult.

“I knew she had been sick. I re­ceived a let­ter from the South African gov­ern­ment in De­cem­ber last year in­form­ing me that she was ill.

“The let­ter had been writ­ten in Au­gust (2016). It asked for my com­pas­sion­ate re­lease, but that too failed. I’m still an­gry at my cap­tors for that.”

McGown, who con­verted to Is­lam dur­ing his in­car­cer­a­tion, at­trib­uted his strong spirit to his faith, phys­i­cal ex­er­cise and a huge amount of read­ing. This kept alive the hope that one day he would be re­leased.

“There were many times when I thought I’d be freed, and it led to dis­ap­point­ment af­ter dis­ap­point­ment, but I had to be strong.

In March 2012 – he was cap­tured in Novem­ber 2011 – ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­lease him were at an ad­vanced stage when a coup in Mali dis­rupted the talks.

What fol­lowed were years of an­guish and des­per­ate pleas for help from his fam­ily. His fa­ther even of­fered to take his place as a hostage, but this was dis­cour­aged by the South African gov­ern­ment.

McGown was kid­napped at a ho­tel in Tim­buktu to­gether with Jo­han Gustafs­son, a Swedish cit­i­zen, and Sjaak Ri­jke, of the Nether­lands, who were later re­leased.

Last week, the New York Times re­ported that a ran­som of 3.5 mil­lion ( R55m) had been paid to se­cure his re­lease. How­ever, the gov­ern­ment has de­nied pay­ing a ran­som to se­cure McGown’s re­lease, and Gift of the Givers also said it had no knowl­edge of such a pay­ment.

McGown’s fa­ther, Mal­colm, said he could not be­lieve it when his son ap­peared at their home on July 25.

“He got out of the car and I said: ‘I can’t be­lieve this.’ I got my arms around him and hugged him. I told him that I could see that he still had some flesh on his bones and he was feel­ing strong.

“He felt good. He looks a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, but he still has that same win­ning na­ture. I think he comes across well. He is friendly. He’s al­ways got on with peo­ple,” he said, adding it would take time for his son to ad­just.

They had ex­pected him to come back a “dif­fer­ent man”. McGown, a banker by pro­fes­sion, had ear­lier told jour­nal­ists he was no longer fas­ci­nated by the “cap­i­tal­ist” way of think­ing.

“He’s only just back. I think he still needs to set­tle in and talk to peo­ple. He’s got all his friends who are still in the cap­i­tal­ist world. It’s one of the things I said to my wife that he may come back not lik­ing all the glitz of the BMWs and Mercedes," McGown sr said.

“Yet he may come to the farm and say he doesn’t like wide open spa­ces be­cause he has seen enough of that in the desert.”

PICTURE: REUTERS

Stephen McGown, who was kid­napped by al-Qaeda in 2011, ar­rives for a me­dia con­fer­ence this week.

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