Former Al-Qaeda hostage shares his story in hopes of inspiring others

2020-02-11 04:30
Steve McGown, who was held hostage for five years and eight months by Al-Qaeda in Mali, recently spoke to pupils of The Wykeham Collegiate about having a positive attitude and sticking to your goals. PHOTO: jackie clausen

Steve McGown, who was held hostage for five years and eight months by Al-Qaeda in Mali, recently spoke to pupils of The Wykeham Collegiate about having a positive attitude and sticking to your goals. PHOTO: jackie clausen

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It may sound like a cliché, but Stephen McGown has been to hell and back. And now he is using his story to inspire others to overcome life’s challenges.

Last week, McGown enthralled pupils at The Wykeham Collegiate and Hilton College as he recounted how he was held hostage for five years and eight months by Al-Qaeda in Mali.

McGown, who has moved on from the experience to forgive and forget, is giving talks all over South Africa with a hope to inspire people.

“I’ve done around 60 talks already and I have 40 already booked for this year. For me it feels ordinary because I lived it, but the reactions I get from people are overwhelming,” he said.

Thirty-six at the time and travelling by motorbike from London to South Africa, McGown was kidnapped from Timbuktu along with a Dutch and a Swedish national.

During this period, he lived far from civilisation, kept deep in the Sahara away from the searching eyes of French surveillance planes and drones.

He was moved to a different camp every two months and was never allowed to forget that he was a prisoner.

McGown had limited communication with his family in the first six months of his captivity, which ceased altogether once the French military forces arrived in Mali.

“I had no idea when things would come to an end or how my family was,” McGown recalled on Monday.

“The days were long. The winters were absolutely freezing. We were sleeping outdoors under the stars. The summers were incredibly hot and there were mosquitoes everywhere. I never thought there would be mosquitoes in the Sahara.”

Although not mistreated, McGown did fear for his life on several occasions, and constantly worried about his health.

“There were guns around us. They all had their AK47s and in the beginning we were treated like prisoners.

“We were hated and we had teenagers walking past us pulling faces and laughing at us. It was a very difficult environment,” he said.

McGown said at the beginning he was optimistic, but as years passed, he lost hope that he would ever see his loved ones again. “I would pick dates like birthdays, Christmas and Easter and these days kept coming and passing and we wouldn’t go home.

“These are the days I was hoping to be home by. As time went by and as Al- Qaeda got stronger, it seems like there was less and less chance of a negotiation being successful. I always thought I would go home but I just didn’t know how it would happen.

“I always knew that while I was alive, there is always hope.”

McGown was finally released in August 2017 and on his return, he said he had difficulty adjusting and felt overwhelmed. “I had people come up to me and say ‘welcome home’ as if they knew me but nobody actually gave me their name. I had no idea who they were, and I found it exhausting.”

Upon his return, McGown spent several days in hospital with a fever and headaches. He also had problems with his eye, back and experienced memory loss, although he has recovered now.

“I could be introduced to somebody and literally 10 seconds later, I would not have a clue who that person was.”

If you would like to get Stephen to speak, contact him on 082 939 0947.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg
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