Malcolm McGown, father of released al-Qaeda captive Stephen McGown, centre, and his wife Catherine, share a light moment at a press conference on Thursday. Stephen, who was held hostage in a Mali desert for almost six years, is still angry at his captors for failing to release him to attend his mother’s funeral. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
DURBAN - Stephen McGown, the South African held hostage by al-Qaeda-linked militants in a Mali desert for almost six years, is still angry at his captors for not releasing him to attend his mother’s funeral. She died in May.

McGown made his first public appearance at the Gift of the Givers offices in Johannesburg on Thursday accompanied by his father Malcolm, wife Catherine and sister Leigh-Anne.

He returned to the country last week sparking speculation over whether the government paid a ransom to secure his release.

Reliving his six-year ordeal, a mostly jovial McGown said he had a lot to catch up on and was learning something new every day.

The former banker only learnt that musicians George Michael and David Bowie had died at the press conference.

McGown said all he wished for on his return was to reunite with his family.

That his mother could not be there to welcome him hurt him deeply.

“I don’t want to harbour resentment, but I’m angry that I was not released to be with my mother or to go to her funeral. I will forgive them because I don’t want to carry the burden,” he said

He was abducted with Swedish national Johan Gustafsson and Dutchman Sjaak Rijke at a hotel in Timbuktu in 2011, when he was on a motorcycle trip there.

McGown said they were kept mostly in the desert exposed to the vagaries of the weather.

He revealed that although born a Christian, he converted to Islam during his captivity of his own volition.

The fresh-looking man, still sporting a long beard, said his religion and regular physical exercises kept his health and spirits up.

“I didn’t want to come home angry. I wanted to come here a better person. I used the exercises as a relief and to forget what was happening around me.

“I was worried about my health a lot and sometimes these exercises would be cancelled for no reason. We just had to toe the line and do what we were told.”

He and the other two prisoners were moved between nine to 10 camps during their ordeal.

The camps were often heavily guarded and in secluded places. The guards would rotate monthly to avoid getting familiar with the prisoners.

McGown was the last of the three prisoners to be released.

He said he believed there could be more prisoners around Mali.

“I never saw them but our captors would mention them.”

He said his kidnapping still boggled him as he thought that Muslims were friendly and welcoming people to foreign guests.

Passport

“I still don’t know why it happened or whether it’s because they caught me with a British passport,” said McGown.

He said he initially found it difficult to settle down and the first three months were horrific as he did not know if he’d be alive the next day.

“They would swear at us but the treatment got better when I converted to Islam.

“The name-calling stopped and they would wash my clothes and give me the good meat from the animals they had slaughtered. Things changed drastically. We were well looked after but there was always uncertainty.

“I’ve learnt a lot from Islam. Its laws are strict and require a strict character. It has removed me from the capitalist way of thinking, I’m more about humankind now,” he said.

The Gift of the Givers co-ordinated his release.

The organisation’s head, Imtiaz Sooliman, said the militants initially wanted $10million for the release of each prisoner.

“I had to tell them that my organisation does not pay anybody money.”

Mohamed Yehia Dicko from the organisation was the main negotiator with the militants.

He had to travel to Mali nine times to pass messages between them and the organisation.

He was also instrumental in getting McGown videos from Mali to prove to his family he was alive.

“In some cases the meetings scheduled for Monday would only take place days later because of security checks I had to go through. I was the only person they could deal with because I spoke their language,” said Dicko, who is from Mali.

He also confirmed that no money was exchanged between them and the militants.

Daily News