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Johannesburg - Debbie Calitz. Monique Strydom. Yolandi Korkie. Malcolm McGown and his wife draw their strength – and hope – from their fellow South Africans who have been taken hostage. And survived.
“We’re all in a similar situation and so we support and comfort each other,” McGown told the Saturday Star this week from his Sandton home where he was nursing his gravely ill wife, Beverley.
For the McGown family, it’s been an agonising 912 days that their son, Stephen Malcolm McGown, has been held captive by a band of al-Qaeda militants in the lonely desert of Mali.
And like the family of Pierre Korkie, who will mark their own grim anniversary this week, tomorrow signals two years and six months that the adventurous Stephen, now 39, has been imprisoned.
“Our life goes on day by day,” McGown says wearily. “You wake up thinking about it. You go to bed thinking about it. You think about it in-between, about what you can do to get him out.
“All these things cost money. You get a lot of people telling you, ‘yes I can help’. People take advantage of the situation. And then you have nothing to show for it.”
For Korkie’s family, next week marks a year since the Bloemfontein teacher was snatched along with his wife Yolandi in Yemen, also by an al-Qaeda affiliated group.
Freed in January, Yolandi made another impassioned appeal to her husband’s captors this week to release him. It later emerged that 10 days ago there was confirmation Korkie, who is also seriously ill, was seen with a UN aid worker from Sierra Leone, who was also captured.
Last week, Stephen’s wife, Katherine, a Joburg-based speech therapist, embraced Yolandi at a meeting arranged in Joburg. “My daughter-in-law met Yolandi and they had a chat. They are two ladies without their husbands. They are in a similar situation. We have given them our phone numbers.”
Both families draw their strength from Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Strydom, the national commander of the SAPS hostage negotiation team. McGown and Strydom met again on Thursday.
“He sees us very regularly. He tries to support us as much as he can.”
But for the McGown’s, time is running out. Beverley, who is 66, has been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and battles to breathe.
McGown fears the worst. “We need Stephen back because my wife is not well. She needs 15 hours of oxygen a day. We have told the authorities we have to get Stephen back before she passes on. It’s all the stress that has brought it on. She has lost a lot of weight; has gone into a depression.”
McGown was taken hostage in Mali in November 2011, along with Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Hollander Sjaak Rijke, a Dutch citizen. The trio were snatched from a restaurant in Timbuktu, Mali, along with a German friend, who was killed immediately by the militants.
Stephen had worked for Investec in the UK, and was on his “final adventure” biking through Africa, before returning to South Africa. His father describes him as an “adventuresome” young man, who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
“He was in the prime of his life. He would have come home to start a family. His wife is in a difficult position. Her friends are all married with children. And she is stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
In the first year, there were astronomical demands for ransom. But no longer. The hostage-takers had previously threatened to kill Stephen if militant “hate preacher” Abu Qatada was not released from prison.
There have been several “proofs of life”, the most recent in February. McGown and his family cling to the brief videod sentences in which their son tells the world he is healthy, he is alive, and pleads with the government to intervene. For months afterwards, there is deafening silence.
Communication with local authorities has dried up. “We have not heard from the Department of International Relations for a very long time. In the early days we were told a lot was going on behind the scenes… but I don’t think anything is… If you don’t have a dialogue nothing will ever happen.”
To free Stephen he wishes the government would pay a ransom to uplift Malian communities or arrange a prisoner swap. “The department has insisted it does not talk to al-Qaeda. So, what are our options?”
Since their son’s capture, the McGown family have endured their hellish ordeal privately, and quietly, watching the spotlight shine on the Korkie family, unsure of the implications of media attention. “We do feel a bit left out. Our son has been held for a long, long time.”
McGown draws strength from the stories of other survivors, like John McCarthy, who was held hostage in Lebanon for six years before his release. But then, there is the horror, like the case of Phillipe Verdon, the Frenchman killed by his captors in Mali in 2011.
Often, he thinks dangerous, unwise thoughts: of heading to Mali himself. But he has a daughter, grandchildren in the UK, and an ill wife. Still, the desperation lingers. “Maybe I will go there. I want to see my son again. If they hold me too, it’s fine. I would happily trade my life for his.” - Saturday Star