Freed McGown thanks Sooliman from hospital bed
Johannesburg - The call came in just after 6.30 on Friday night from the Milpark Hospital in Joburg. Stephen McGown told Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman that he couldn’t wait any longer to thank him for helping to save his life.
“He said a profound thank you. He told me he had studied all the websites and got all the information about the negotiations.
“He said had we not got involved he would never have come home. He sounded so strong and positive. It was lovely talking to him.”
Sooliman and McGown were due to meet in person on Friday for the first time at a media briefing at the NGO’s offices in Bramley, Joburg, but McGown’s doctors red-flagged an infection. “He is still in hospital for a few days but he will be out next week,” said Sooliman.
McGown was freed last weekend, after six years held hostage by the North African division of al-Qaeda in Mali. “On Thursday, his wife Catherine called me and said Stephen wants to meet with me.
“I told her there’s no rush. She messaged me again this morning to say he wanted to meet us. His father, Malcolm, told me how strong he is. When we told him to go with Stephen by ambulance to the media briefing today, he responded: ‘He’s a strong man. He can go himself.’”
Hostage negotiator Mohamed Yehia Dicko, who travelled to Mali nine times to broker his release, said he too looked forward to meeting McGown. “I always told Imtiaz he would be released. Al-Qaeda in the north of Mali are not like Isis, they are not too brutal.
“They know these people (hostages) are innocent tourists. They treat them well, they don’t beat them, they eat the same food with them, they live in the same conditions. They play soccer and do everything together...
“I’m happy since getting the news on July 31, when some of the state security in Mali sent me a message to congratulate me on Stephen’s release.”
The businessman told how he heard a plea on the radio from Sooliman two years ago, asking if there were any Malians who could help negotiate the release of McGown. “I told my friend who knows them I can help them.”
In May, Gift of the Givers said the negotiations had succeeded in reducing the ransom request from €20million (R315m) to €8.5m but a plea was made to the king of Qatar in May this year as a last resort.
“The king has been successful in negotiating the release of many a hostage at the behest of diverse governments.” But Sooliman said on Friday: “We never got a response to this day”.
The government has denied paying a ransom, and Gift of the Givers too has denied knowledge of one. Sooliman said the final part of the release was done “government to government”.
But on Friday night, in an interview with eNCA, New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi said: “Governments do pay ransoms.
“It’s an impossible situation, they can’t admit they pay ransoms, otherwise it’s open season on all South Africans.
“The money goes from the SA Treasury to an intermediary, sometimes a second one and then finally to the hostage-takers so the thread is lost and it’s much much more difficult to trace the ransom back to the government in question.” She reported how a retired European intelligence official revealed that e3.5m had been paid.