Stephen McGown on the 'ups and downs' of clinging to hope

2017-08-10 22:50
Stephen McGown at the press conference. (Simon Sonnekus, Netwerk24)

Stephen McGown at the press conference. (Simon Sonnekus, Netwerk24)

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Johannesburg – After years of false hope, former al-Qaeda hostage Stephen McGown said he got tired of believing that he would ever be released.

McGown, who spent almost six years in captivity, was jovial during a media briefing on Thursday, often making journalists laugh as he described the conditions he was forced to live under as a hostage in Mali.

“It's difficult to actually comprehend. By this stage you have had so many ups and downs. You are not sure who to believe. In the end you just don’t want to really believe. You are tired of coming down with a bang after being told you would be released,” he said. 

Dressed in a blue shirt, with his face covered with a long beard and shoulder length hair, he joked that he would like to keep his new look.

“I am not sure my wife will like it,” he quipped soon after.

McGown was kidnapped in November 2011 in Timbuktu by al-Qaeda militants while he was on holiday.

He was taken captive alongside Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Sjaak Rijke of The Netherlands.

Gustafson was released in June, while France’s Special Forces freed Rijke in April 2015.

He said during the first three months, he was chained and tied down in a cell with his fellow prisoners. 

Forgot about us

“Sometimes they would forget about us. We would sit until nine, ten o' clock.” he said. 

He explained how he lived in a hut which he had built with one blanket to keep warm on cold and rainy days.

However after he converted to Islam of his own accord, he said he started receiving more favourable treatment from his captors. 

“They treated me well. However you always knew that you were a prisoner. You were at the bottom of the food chain. If you walked 50 m too far, they were aware of it."

He said after converting, the man holding him captive would wash his clothes and serve him the good part of the meat, however he was always aware that he was in prison. 

“The winds in winter were absolutely freezing. We had one blanket... the thunder storms were not my favourite... During the day it’s not a problem so much but at night it’s a problem... It's extreme.”

He said he did not want to come home angry and resentful.

“I did my best to see the best in a bad situation in a difficult time. I did not want to come home angry and a burden to my family. I try and see the best of that situation.”

Information overload

He said to stay positive he built things and nurtured his love for bird life. 

However the lack of information of the outside world was one of the difficult parts of living in the Sahara, he said. He referenced the absence of books in English and not having any contact with his family.

His mother passed away five months before his release. He said he suspected his mother had died after he received a letter in September last year.

“I suspected this but I only found out my mother passed away approximately ten minutes before arriving home with my father. So Sunday was information overload.”

He described his mother as an amazing woman and role model. Holding back his tears, he said the one thing he could not understand was why al-Qaeda kept him hostage after hearing about his mother’s illness. 

He said he converted to Islam by choice adding that he saw good things in the religion. 

“I am a God fearing person. I entered Islam on my own accord. I see many good things in Islam and I also see other things that do not sit well with me. I will be reading up on it.”

McGown said what he missed the most aside from his family was his freedom. 

“I was looked after very well, clothes, food and medication but I missed freedom.”

Gift of the Givers

McGown said during his ordeal his faith in mankind was restored. 

“I cannot believe how many people have supported me and my family.”

McGown said his body has been in a state of shock since his return.

“I have been eating rice and pasta. Anything beyond that is a shock to the body. Having been back here, I have had heavy headaches and I suffer from back pain.”

He said this may be because of his body adjusting to the climate. 

McGown's father Malcolm praised Gift of the Givers, saying had it not been for them his son would have been there for another five years.

Malcom said he approached Gift of the Givers because he was stonewalled by the South African government. 

Any talk of ransom was dismissed by Gift of the Givers. Captives insisted money must be handed over. 

In December 2015, Mali captives reached out to Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman. A video was made asking Qatar for money. 

The initial ransom was €10m. It then dropped to €5m.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  gift of the givers  |  stephen mcgown

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