Stephen McGowan returned to South Africa last week after spending six years as a hostage in Mali.

At a press conference in Johannesburg on Thursday, an emotional but visibly happy McGowan – long hair and unkempt beard not yet cut – thanked everyone involved in securing his release, and described the details of his kidnapping.

“I was in the dark with absolutely everything. I had no idea when things would come to an end or how my family was,” he said.

McGowan was held by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in the Sahara desert in northern Mali.
He was moved to a different camp every two months, and was never allowed to forget that he was a prisoner.

“I was looked after very well. I had clothes, I had food. When I was ill they would bring medication, limited medication but Panado and things along those lines. And I would make the best of the situation. I would try and joke and get along. But you always knew you were a prisoner, if you ask one too many questions you get put back in your place.

Although not mistreated, McGowan did fear for his life on several occasions, and constantly worried about his health. He exercised to keep fit, and sane. “Exercise was important. I would do star jumps. I’ve got upper back problems, lower back problems, and this would play up throughout. Exercise was also good to distract myself.

“When you change camps, when you move to a new area, these guys can drive, they drive at full speed and bounce over everything and it’s very bad for your back.”

He was allowed to move relatively freely around the desert camps, but never to stray outside of them. He also picked up some desert survival skills from his captors, such as how to skin a gazelle and to dig a well for water. “I could probably build a city in [the Sahara] now with the skills I’ve picked up.”

McGowan converted to Islam while still a hostage – a decision made of his own volition, he says – and that improved his conditions. “Once converted, the guys wanted to wash your clothes with you, you would sit and recite with them in the river beds, even when you’re a prisoner they would bring you good meat from the animal. Once converted, things changed dramatically. [But] it’s still uncertain, if you don’t know the Sharia [Islamic law], you are uncertain if this is a game or not.”

Since his return, McGowan has sent several days in hospital with a fever and headaches, although is recovering now. He has also been catching up on the new he missed while in captivity. “George Michael died? I didn’t know that.”

He says he is going to try to move on from the experience, to forgive and forget. “Is there any good in this? Well, I certainly learnt a lot about Islam. I see a lot of good in Islam. It requires very strict character, very good character, looking after people, and it has opened my eyes. It’s taken me away from capitalism and shown me a different angle in life. Good things have come from this but it was six years and a big gap that I’ve now lost out on.”

He’s not sure if he’s going to keep the beard. “Everybody seems to be growing beards these days, so maybe I’ll fit in fine.”