Johannesburg – Stephen McGown, the South African man who was held captive for almost six years in Mali, on Thursday recounted his experiences in the Sahara desert, and the changes he had to acclimatise to after he was released last month and arrived back home in Johannesburg.
"The difficult part of being in the Sahara was that you don't have any information. As much as you ask, nobody is able to tell you anything. I'm not sure if they [the militants in charge of the captives, referred to as the mujahideen] just didn't tell you anything or [if] they are not allowed to tell you anything. This was difficult. They didn't have many books in English, not knowing Arabic and French -- that was really the difficulty, not having information and being unable to contact my family," McGown said at a media briefing in Johannesburg.
"Coming home, I suspected my mother may have passed away. Last year in December, I received a letter from the South African government asking for my compassionate release. This letter was addressed to the mujahideen asking for compassion, mentioning that my mother was critically ill and may pass away. They gave the letter to me to read, they did not know what was in the letter. I think they were expecting [it] to cheer me up. I only found out that my mother had passed just ten minutes before getting home with my father [last month]."
He was flanked by his wife Catherine McGown and his father Malcolm.
McGown was released on July 25, and was reunited with his family in Johannesburg.
His mother, Beverly McGown, passed away in May after making numerous appeals for her son’s release.
"That Sunday [July 30] was an information overload. I received the news that my mother had passed away, but also so many other people have passed away in these six years - family members and friends. A bunch of friends have had children, and the children are big now. So much has changed but my mom was a big blow. She was an amazing lady, a role model. I can imagine my mom going through difficult times really wanting to see me before she passed away," said McGown.
"It's life. It's the way it is. I try and see the best in everything but that is one thing I don't understand. I can't see much good in not seeing my mother. All other things, I can try and find positives in them."
McGown 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.
"In winter the nights are cold, the days are great. The day is not a problem. You build your hut out of grass and sticks. You may have some cloth that you put on top of it. It's pretty comfortable. Early days were a big problem for security reasons. I think the mujahideen didn't know what the surveillance aeroplanes can and can't see. Everything was really strict. You see an aeroplane, you lie down ... become invisible," said McGown on Thursday.
"The winter nights were cold, the winds were actually freezing. I had a blanket, then I had a second blanket but the wind blows right through these things. When the three of us were taken together, we were chained at night. We had handcuffs and our ankles were chained. Sometimes they would forget about us in the morning and we would be sitting there until around 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning chained up in your blanket. That changed though."
McGown said the captives would get soaked during the heavy thunderstorms.
"You get absolutely soaked. It's generally in the evenings, at night. You spend the night pretty chilly, wet, with sand in your clothes. Sand everywhere. It's extreme. It's quite something," he said.
McGown said he knows absolutely nothing about the claims of a ransom being paid for his release.
Gift of the Givers director, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman also doubted the ransom claims.
"In this business you build a relationship with one person. If you change that person, the negotiations are gone. They build trust and a relationship with one person. The only person that the captors had trust in, via their intermediaries because we don't meet the captors but the intermediaries, is Yehia. If the money had to go through us, he had to deliver it personally. Yehia has not left South Africa in the last four months," said Sooliman.
Mohamed Yehia Dicko is a Malian based in South Africa who volunteered to assist in the search for McGown, after Gift of the Givers appealed for help in June 2015.
"Without him, this would have been impossible. When Gift of the Givers agreed to take on the case, in 2015, I made an announcement in the media to say I was looking for a person of Mali origin, who knows the tribes, who knows the regions, who is prepared to take high risk, who is prepared to go into the region and within two hourshe walked into my office. He has been to Mali nine times. At some point his wife and kids were ill, but he stayed there nevertheless," Sooliman spoke of Dicko, who was also present at the briefing.