‘I just tried to stay positive’ — McGown

For a man who spent almost six years in captivity in the vast desert of Mali, Stephen McGown this week appeared composed as he shared his nerve-wracking experiences.

The 42-year-old was kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked militants while on holiday in Mali in November 2011, as were Dutchman Sjaak Rijke and Swede national Johan Gustafsson.

He said their early months in detention were the most difficult because the three had to share one blanket, and their hands and ankles were in handcuffs.

One of his first harrowing experiences in the camp, he said, was “when they slaughtered a goat and I was like, ‘ok, that could be me next’”.

“The difficult part was that you don’t have information ... nobody is able to tell you anything. Also, not having any books in English, and not knowing Arabic and French was difficult.

“I had many responsibilities to come home to. I promised I would be home to pick up my responsibilities, but my six months became six years,” he said, adding that, as a bird-watching enthusiast, he saw swallows migrate back and forth six times across the Sahara Desert.

“I just stayed positive ... you’re never sure when it’s going come to an end. I didn’t want to come back home a mess. I did my best to see the best in a bad situation. You try to find a routine – you exercise, build things and try to make conversation, make friends, with the Mujahideen [guerrilla fighters in Islamic countries].”

He said he got used to living in a hut he built himself with grass and sticks, but it didn’t keep the ice-cold and blustering winter winds at bay. When it rained in summer, they experienced “the most incredible thunderstorms”, which meant they spent chilly and wet nights covered in sand.

McGown left South Africa a Christian and returned a Muslim. He said he was not forced by his captors to adopt Islam, but admitted things changed dramatically.

“Once converted, the guys wanted to wash your clothes by the river beds. Even when you were a prisoner, they would give you good meat … I see many good things in Islam, which I like, but I also see many things that don’t make sense to me. So I will continue to read and find out more about it,” he said, adding that he was always put in his place if he took it too far and would be reminded that he was a prisoner.

He said one of his captors once told him he was fortunate to be kidnapped rather than kept in jail. He said he reckoned that, in jail, he probably could have had access to books in his language, seen his family and used the telephone instead of sitting outside in thunderstorms.

He added that jail would have been better because he would have at least known his sentence and the amount of time he would spend behind bars.

“I was in the dark, I had no idea when this would come to an end, or how my family was.”

The price of freedom

He said he saw Rijke freed in 2015. Gustafsson was released in June. He left without saying goodbye. McGown was later told that he could be next, but it was hard to believe.

“I’d heard this many times before,” he said.

All of a sudden, on June 21, he was ordered to collect his things because he was leaving. Days later, after a long drive, he could not believe it when the driver told him: “You are free ... if you don’t believe me, you can walk.”

Another car came along and he jumped into it. When they got onto the tattered road leading to the city of Gao, he realised his freedom was imminent.

“I realised that, if they tried to take me back, I would have jumped out of the car and run,” he said.

There have been speculations and various reports regarding a price tag for his freedom. The South African government has flatly denied that a ransom was paid for his release.

The Gift of the Givers, an organisation that played a pivotal role in negotiating his freedom, said it had made it clear to his captors that they would not get any money. Its head, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, confirmed that there had been ransom demands that started at €10 million (R159 million) and dropped to €4 million.

Sooliman said they pleaded for compassionate release on the grounds that McGown’s mother was gravely ill. She died two months before he was freed. Sooliman said he told the militants that the organisation could meet their other demand of a prisoner exchange.

He said he was then told he needed to involve government. “They told me: ‘Your government must talk to the Mali government; your state security must to talk to Mali state security, get embassies involved, make arrangements for passports ... To make sure we’ve cut our end of the bargain, whatever the bargain is, you may have to send a helicopter to fetch him.’”

For McGown’s father, Malcolm, it did not matter how his son was released.

“When I spoke to government, I said we heard all sorts of things – prisoner swaps, money – I don’t want to know, you just put my son next to me, that’s all I want.”

Now that he is home and a free man, McGown said he was considering joining the family business and allowing his father to retire.