From banker to hut builder: McGown describes his experience

11 August 2017 - 15:53 By Nomahlubi Jordaan
Stephen McGown poses for the cameras with wife Catherine after being released from al-Qaeda capture in Mali.
Stephen McGown poses for the cameras with wife Catherine after being released from al-Qaeda capture in Mali.
Image: Alon Skuy

Stephen McGown was told by his abductors that he was better off as a hostage in the camps in Mali than being in prison‚ but he would have preferred to have been in jail.

“I couldn’t understand this (point of view) because in jail you can see your family‚ you can use a telephone…and you also know you are there for five years…I was in the dark. I did not know how my family was.”

Exercise and finding distractions‚ like watching the birds‚ helped him stay positive.

“Exercise was important. A lot of time‚ I exercised. [But] there was a time I could not stand up for five days. It was a big worry. There were times when I was very concerned about my health‚ so I exercised a lot. Exercise is good; it takes your mind off things."

McGown described the circumstances under which he was held by al-Qaeda linked militants at a briefing held at the offices of the Gift of the Givers in Johannesburg this week. He had been held hostage by the Islamist militants in Mali since 2011. During his time as a hostage‚ he converted to Islam.

McGown was released two weeks ago‚ but his return to South Africa was only announced publicly on August 3.

“I was trying to make conversations with the Mujahideen‚ to get along with the Mujahideen‚" he said.

"I did not want to come back an angry person and become a greater burden for my family."

Being a hostage‚ for former banker McGown‚ meant being involved in activities that he was not used to such as building “things” and eating different foods.

While in the desert‚ McGown had learnt to build shelter.

“You built your hut out of grass and sticks ... and have some cloth that you put on top of it.”

Recalling the events of the day he was kidnapped‚ McGown said his recollection was “blurry”

“We arrived in Timbuktu that evening…I had a look around and came back. We went back to the hotel and some guys came in‚ one holding a pistol…I didn’t see what’s going on…We got under the table...They grabbed me.

“Everything is up in the air‚ you don’t know what to expect‚ where you are. You are not sure if you are going to lose your head or what’s gonna happen‚” McGown said.

Things settled down after the first year‚ but he said he was struggling with communication as he was not fluent in Arabic and French‚ the two languages spoken there.

“Not having books in English‚ not knowing Arabic‚ not knowing French…this was really difficult stuff and not being able to contact my family.

“The difficult part about the Sahara is that you don’t have information. As much as you ask‚ no one is able to tell you anything.”

While he has strong British ties McGown does not believe it is the reason he was kidnapped.

“The story goes as such: the whole world is now changing Islam and changing Muslims…Ultimately‚ God’s religion should govern the world and anyone challenging the religion should be fought. And this is why I was captured.

“They kidnapped me because I was just not Muslim and I suppose they wanted…money.

“If you are Muslim‚ I’ve been told‚ you can go anywhere in the world and you won’t have a problem with the Mujahideen‚ doesn’t matter what colour you are‚ what language you speak."

McGown said he spent nearly six years in Mali not knowing when “it’s coming to an end”.

And even when the time came on July 29‚ he did not believe he had been set free.

He said a car came in his camp and told him that one of the captives had been freed and that he might also go home.

“I’ve heard the story many times‚ so I was like this for certain?

“We got in the car. [there was] a lot of driving and a lot of car changes. We went to another place‚ which was very far from where I was."

After driving around‚ McGown said he was told to get into another car and that is when the driver broke the long awaited news.

“The driver turned to me and said ‘you are free‚ you can go’. He said ‘if you don’t believe me you can walk‚ you can go.

“We hit the tar road. Once I hit the tar road‚ I crossed the bridge and I realised that if they try and take me back‚ I’m gonna jump off the car and go.

“I realised this must be freedom. It was quite a moment. Difficult to understand‚ comprehend‚” McGown said.

McGown‚ whose wife Catherine was a supportive figure at the briefing‚ is now settling in and trying to make sense of everything around him‚ including his mother’s death shortly before he was freed. One of his priorities is to join his father in the family business.

Clinical psychologist Craig Traub says McGown will need time to integrate with society.

McGown‚ according to Traub‚ may experience post-traumatic stress issues and complex trauma.

“Integration is likely to be intense."

His family and society would initially be accommodating‚ Traub said. "However‚ fuller integration takes place over a lengthy period of time."

"People he may remember might have changed psychologically‚ physically‚ or geographically‚ or even passed on.

“(People who) he used to connect to may seem like strangers‚ which may invoke a deeper sense of loneliness.”