Mali hostage’s wife still hopeful after three years and only one call

2014-12-14 06:00

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While two South African families mourn their loved ones who were killed in extremist violence, a third family is still living in hope.

It has been three years since Stephen McGown (39) was taken hostage by al-Qaeda in Timbuktu, Mali.

“It breaks my heart that Stephen could experience only a month and a half of his life’s dream before it went so horribly wrong,” his wife, Catherine (36), said in Joburg last week.

“His dream was to tour through Africa alone on his motorbike. He loved life and was an adventurer. I believe that will carry him through.”

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, said this week McGown was one of five South Africans still being held hostage abroad.

The other four are the so-called Baghdad Four, who were kidnapped outside Baghdad in Iraq on December 10, 2006.

Their families have since had them declared dead.

Johann Enslin (48), Andre Durant (38), Hardus Greeff (43) and Callie Scheepers (48) were seized by Iraqi militants at a roadblock while they were escorting a Safenet Security Services truck.

Apart from one call, nothing has been heard of the men again.

Catherine McGown said she had had mixed emotions over the past two weeks when the three members of the Groenewald family were shot dead in Afghanistan and Pierre Korkie was killed in Yemen.

The last French citizen being held hostage in Mali was freed last week after the French government entered into an exchange agreement with the extremists.

Serge Lazarevic was taken hostage at the same time as Stephen McGown but it is not known if they were held together.

French soldiers in Mali occasionally gave feedback on information about McGown. This was then given to the South African government.

Nkoana-Mashabane has given an assurance that the government is trying “tirelessly” to secure McGown’s release.

Exactly what this entails is not known.

Catherine McGown said she and Yolande Korkie, Pierre’s widow, were in constant contact with each other for mutual support.

They also met to give each other encouragement.

“We were in different stages of hope. Yolande’s hope was still strong when I had become tired of the uncertainty.

“It devastated me when the news that Pierre was killed became known. Now I’m worried all over again about Stephen.”

Stephen McGown started his trip through Africa on his motorbike about 45 days before he was captured. Along the way, he made friends with a Dutchman, Sjaak Rijke, and a Swede, Johan Gustafsson, and they toured together.

They were seized by members of al-Qaeda in a series of attacks and a coup in Timbuktu. A German tourist was killed in the attack.

McGown also had British citizenship. His wife said evidence provided by the extremists a few months ago suggested he was still alive.

“My faith, my good friends and my family support me. I don’t like to look at photos of us together. It’s too difficult,” said Catherine, who is a children’s speech therapist.

“I run a lot – long distances. Working with the children helps because they make me laugh. We were married for four-and-a-half wonderful years.

“Stephen is a cheerful person with a zest for life. I believe it will be his cheerfulness that will carry him through.”

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