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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Al-Qaeda hostages McGown and Gustafsson talk of time in Sahara

Johan Gustafsson (left) and McGown were held for almost six years. AGENCIES
Johan Gustafsson (left) and McGown were held for almost six years. AGENCIES

Stephen McGown watched the swallows migrate back and forth across the Sahara six times before he was finally rescued from the grip of Islamist extremists.

In that time, he only truly feared for his life on three occasions - all of them within the first panicked months which followed his kidnap from a hotel in Timbuktu.

Each time, the feeling was the same.

"Your brain takes you to another place and the seconds are long and you are numb," he recalled, speaking at a press conference in South Africa, thousands of miles from the men who had stolen six years of his life - and with it, the chance to say a final goodbye to his mother

McGown's rescue was the end of a hostage ordeal which has stretched not only across the years, but across continents. He was the last of the three men taken by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to be released.

The 42-year-old had already watched his fellow hostages, Dutchman Sjaak Rijke and Swede Johan Gustafsson, leave the makeshift camps which had been both their home and prison.

Sitting in front of the media in South Africa on Thursday, McGown admitted he had barely dared hoped he might be next.

"In the end, you just do not want to believe," he said. "Well, you want to believe, but you are tired of coming down with a bang."

A lot has happened since 25 November, 2011, the day AQIM stormed a small Timbuktu hotel and seized the three men, shooting dead a fourth man - a German - before driving them deep into the desert.

None of the men knew if they would survive. McGown was perhaps the most vulnerable: his dual British-South African citizenship meant he was a prize bargaining chip.

Sitting and watching his captors slaughter a goat in the middle of the camp just days into the kidnap, he said he had thought soberly: "I am probably the first to go because of my British ties."

But he added: "I don't believe they knew my nationality. It would have been first prize for them if I was British. They kidnapped me just because I was non-Muslim."

In the beginning, they were kept chained at night, huddled under a blanket together "like sardines" until someone unlocked them in the morning.

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