Johannesburg – Stephen McGown, the South African man who was held captive for almost six years in Mali, on Thursday said when he was held captive by Al-Qaeda militants he was informed several times that he would be released, but that often never materialised.
McGown said on the day he was finally released - after spending five years, eight months in captivity - he could not believe that his captors were letting him go.
"My fellow prisoner [Swedish national] Johan Gustafsson left the place we were staying a day before the end of Ramadan. A car drove into our place, took him away and we did not get to say goodbye. I didn't actually find out that he had left our particular place until that evening when we had finished fasting for the day. One of the mujahideen said 'oh shame he's gone," McGown recounted at a press briefing hosted by Gift of the Givers in Johannesburg.
A mujahideen is described as "a believer of Islam who fights in a holy war or jihad". These were the guerrilla fighters in charge of McGown and the other captives in the desert area of Mali.
"When they told me that my fellow prisoner was being released and hopefully I also would be going home soon, I said I have heard that story many times over the five years, [and] eight months. I said that sounded positive. I said thank you, don't worry, but I'm going back to my hut. Then they said we are now taking you away with us. They said take what's important. [We] got into the car, a lot of driving, a lot of car changes and that went on for two days. We ended up in another place far from where I was."
He said during the long trip, the militants would hide away from aircraft doing surveillance flights in the vast desert area.
"Then the driver of my car said to me 'you are free, you can go'. I was like 'okay, alright'. He said if I didn't believe him I could walk away. Another car came and we drove out. When we hit the tarred road and crossed over the bridge in Gao, then I realised that if they tried to take me back I would jump [out] of the car and run. I realised then that I was free. It was quite a moment," said McGown.
"There had been many ups and downs over the last five-and-a-half years. You are not sure who you can believe and who you cannot believe. You want to believe but you are afraid of coming down with a bang after they tell you that you will be going home very soon. So this was my last two weeks of my release."
McGown, who converted to Islam during his detention, emphasised that he does not harbour hatred for the Al-Qaeda militants who detained him in West Africa.
“Six years is a long time, a lot has changed. I don’t want to harbour resentment. To forgive or forget, I don’t know if it’s more about forgetting and just putting it behind me and moving [on] than actually forgiving,” he said.
“I can be honest, I am angry about my mother [who passed away]. I am angry that I was not released prior to it [her death]. They were aware that my mother was sick. They were aware of it. To miss my mother by about two months, I’m angry about that. But this must go, I must let go of this.”
Flanked by his wife Catherine McGown and his father Malcolm, McGown said he would forgive the terror group.
“I will forgive. I will move on. You get one life so I don’t wanna carry burdens which hold me back. So it’s okay. It’s alright. It’s gonna be.”
He was released on July 25, and was reunited with his family in Johannesburg.
Beverly McGown passed away in May after making numerous appeals for her son’s release.
Stephen was travelling through Mali on a trans-Africa journey when he was one of three tourists abducted by gunmen from a restaurant in Timbuktu.
The attackers shot and killed a fourth tourist, a German, when he refused to climb into their truck.