Mali hostage's dad never gave up hope: 'I will get to see him again!'

2017-08-03 13:31
PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu

PHOTO: Tumelo Leburu

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Malcolm McGown  never stopped believing his son would come home – and now his faith has been rewarded. Stephen has been set free by his Al Qaeda captors, who held him hostage in Mali for five long years. YOU spoke to his father in July 2017.

The blue off-road motorbike parked in the garage is covered in red sand, gritty from its time in the Sahara desert. But the man standing next to it has no intention of cleaning it.

“Stephen can wash it when he gets back,” he says. “I think it will be good therapy for him.” Malcolm McGown  has been “saving” the task for his son, Stephen, for more than five years – during which he’s been clinging to hope that his boy would be freed by Al Qaeda.

Stephen was kidnapped by the terrorist group in September 2011 in Timbuktu, Mali. His motorbike was found outside the backpackers’ lodge where he’d been staying and delivered to his parents at their home in Sandton, Johannesburg.

His son has always loved adventure, travel and the outdoors, Malcolm tells us. Before setting off on a motorcycle tour of Africa in 2011 Stephen had been a risk manager at a bank in England, where he’d lived for five years.

“It would have been his last adventure before coming back to South Africa to start working for me,” says Malcolm, who owns businesses in property development and the agricultural sector.

“He loves South Africa and he missed his people.” Stephen and a Dutch friend started their trip in London, riding their motorbikes from north  Africa towards the south. Malcolm’s last contact with Stephen was a Skype call just before the pair reached Mali’s capital, Bamako. From there they were going to the ancient desert city of Timbuktu with its famous libraries.

“He waxed lyrical about Timbuktu, expressing his hope that the city would be as magical as he’d heard it was. I remember warning him he’d be riding through a war-torn region. He said he’d catch a flight home if it looked too dangerous,” Malcolm says.

At 8 am on a Saturday morning a few days after that last Skype conversation, the telephone in the McGown  home rang. “It was a travelling companion’s mother. I remember saying, ‘Please don’t tell me something’s wrong.’ She said yes, she’s afraid Stephen has been abducted . . . Beverley and I were in shock. I’ll never forget that morning.”

Stephen had met and teamed up with Johan Gustaffsson  – a Swedish biker – in Bamako and Johan had travelled with him to Timbuktu. By this time Stephen and his Dutch travel companion had parted ways.

Johan was abducted along with Stephen in Timbuktu. Malcolm immediately contacted the South African department of foreign affairs as well as Gift of the Givers, as the organisation  had previously acted as negotiators on behalf of hostages’ families. Gift of the Givers managed to contact the abductors but after two months had gone by, the McGowns realised there wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

“We realised  we’d have to be patient,” Malcolm says. Stephen’s abductors kept moving the hostages so no one was ever sure where they were. But the couple clung to the smallest hint of hope – like when a few of Stephen’s co-hostages were eventually freed.

Read more on:    stephen mcgown
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