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Hope for McGowan’s release

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By Thakira Desai

After a gruelling almost six-year battle to secure the release of South African captive, Stephen McGowan from his al-Qaeda Captors, McGowan’s fellow captee, Johan Gustafsson’s release was this week confirmed. A Swedish national, Gustafsson, McGowan and Dutchman, Sjaak Rijke were kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in November 2011 in Timbuktu, whilst trekking through Mali by motorcycle. Rijke was freed by French Special Forces in April 2015 after he was discovered in a raid in northern Mali.

Providing an update on the status of the McGowan, Gift of the Givers founder and a negotiator for the men’s release, Dr Imitiaz Sooliman, confirmed that the efforts to secure the South African’s release continue.

“It is with great pleasure that I can announce that Johan Gustafsson has been released,” Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström confirmed on Monday. Photo: AFP

Commenting on whether money in fact ‘changed hands’ in the release of Gustafsson, Sooliman says that while it is possible, he cannot confirm these reports.

“The Swedish government was in that process alone, it’s very hard to say, and even the Swedish media don’t know [since] the foreign ministry made a statement yesterday, but there were no details.”

Sjaak Rijke was freed by French Special Forces in April 2015 after he was discovered in a raid in northern Mali. Photo: AFP
The two men are said to have formed a close bond, particularly following the release of Sjaak Rijke. Photo: Al-Jazeera

Despite the gruelling and emotional road that the family of the South African captive continues to endure, Sooliman says that the release of Gustafsson  provides hope in the wait for McGowan’s release.

Upon hearing the news of the release of the Swede, the South African counterparts quickly took to the phones in search of fresh intelligence on McGowan’s status.

“Immediately when we got the news, we contacted our intermediaries in Mali and Niger, but unfortunately the lines were very bad last night. But throughout [today] they have been in contact with us, which doesn’t really happen. They came with the same message that Johan was released and Stephen is still in captivity, but they still working on Stephens case.”

Given calls for ransoms that often accompany kidnappings of this nature; Sooliman asserts that the organisation is not in the financial position to pay any some of money.

“I told our negotiator to impress upon them that time is of the essence. In five years and seven months, if they haven’t understood that we don’t have money, now is the time to understand that we don’t have money.”

“If we had the money, Stephen McGowan would not have stayed in Mali whilst his mother passed on in South Africa; we knew she was sick, if we had the money we would have sent him home a long time ago to spend the last days with his mother, who passed on a few weeks ago.”

Through the negotiators, Sooliman further urged the captors to consider the extent of humanitarian relief that GOTG has provided to the region, asking them to look at the situation favourably.

“Tell them that Stephen may die in captivity because of depression, his Dutch friend was gone in 2015, the friend that was very close to him for the last two years – his Swedish friend – is now also gone…it is now your decision whether you want him to die in captivity simply because nobody could afford to pay for him,” Sooliman stated.

Speaking to the issue of access to social media and the internet in general that the captors enjoy, Sooliman says that when initially interacting with the captors, he quickly realized that they are aware of the extensive media coverage about the abduction.

“The first time when my negotiator went, [GOTG] was still uploading information on the website, they said but you not on the [GOTG] website, how do we know that you the negotiator?”

“[The captors] monitor everything. The guys in Niger told them everything we did in Niger in 2004. When you guys came here, there was famine in the country you went to that area and that hospital, these are the people you treated – you did a great work for our country and we appreciate it,” Sooliman continued.

VOC 91.3fm

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