On Wednesday, humanitarian organisation the Gift of the Givers (GOTG) held a press briefing about headway made in the long-running saga of two hostages. Stephen McGown, a South African, and Johan Gustafsson, a Swedish national, were captured by Al Qaeda in Mali, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), on November 25, 2011. In a bid to assist in securing Gustafson and McGown’s release, the NGO made contact with AQIM. The foundation is yet to make progress in the matter.
Speaking to VOC, Johan’s sister Victoria Gustafsson gives insight into the events that led up to the pair’s captivity and what has transpired thus far.
Gustafsson explains that while the pair had not previously known each other, they were kidnapped while both travelling via motorcycle from North Africa, down to South Africa.
She says that the road the pair travelled, being synonymous with bikers, brings together travellers from all countries, which incidentally connected Johan and McGown.
“For the last stretch, Stephen’s travel mate and Johan’s travel mate decided to go another way. And Stephen and Johan’s group were taking it a bit more slow, so they ended up in Timbuktu the day after [their travel mates], and that is when everything happened,” Gustafsson stated.
While the GOTG have managed to make contact with AQIM, Gustafsson says that she has not had any contact with her brother since his captivity.
Only months after Gustafsson and McGown were taken hostage; a military coup ensued in Mali, which resulted in civil unrest.
Given the period in which the pair was kidnapped, she says the disintegration of Mali’s democracy added to her inability to make contact with her brother.
“One of the first few photos we got to see a few months after, we could see them carrying backpacks and holding up letters that we had sent them. But, that’s the only time that I believe they received anything that we have sent.”
In light of the fact that pictures released of the pair indicate that they appear reasonably healthy and accounts heard of other AQIM captives, who say that they were treated reasonably well, Gustafsson says that she has hope that they will survive this ordeal.
“[Through this ordeal] we have acquired this weird knowledge of terror groups in the region, and this particular group has an honour codex to treat the prisoners well – they are like an investment for the future,” she said.
The recent surge in conflict has left Malians to invent new methods of operating, which she says restrains communication with individuals in the country.
She says that in light of previous hostage situations, where governments have paid exorbitant amounts to secure the release of their nationals held captive in Mali, captors are now demanding higher ransoms.
“The governments have agreed not to pay ransom, and I also agree with this [course of action]. But, in this case, my brother is the ‘guinea pig’ – I have a personal connection.”
Given her and her family’s inability to cover the ransom to secure her brothers release, the assistance of Gift of the Givers was crucial.
“I am a nurse, my dad is a nurse, and my sister is a teacher. We do not have means near to that – even if we sold all our belongings. Imtiaz [founder of GOTG] coming into the scene was a blessing, and he is independent so he does not have to think of the relations between the governments.”
In light of the Islamic persona of groups such as Al-Qaeda, which paints Islam negatively, she says her newly formed relationship with GOTF has restored in her the belief that Islam is at its heart a religion of peace.
Despite not having lost hope in the release of Gustafsson and McGown, she says that she maintains her objectivity in the situation.
“We all have our emotions restrained lately. When people say it’s looking good, I have a complete different definition of ‘looking good’. For me, looking good is my brother on a plane home,” Gustafsson continued.
Below is a link to a proof of life video of Johan Gustafsson that was released by GOTF, on December 1, 2015.