A tourist held prisoner by al Qaeda in Mali for six years recalls the ordeal after his militant Islamist captors released him. Matthew Larotonda reports.
He was held captive by al Qaeda for six years. Steven McGowan, a British and South African tourist taken while on vacation in Mali, now recalling the ordeal after the Islamist militants released him last month. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FORMER AL QAEDA HOSTAGE, STEPHEN MCGOWAN, SAYING: "I do not believe that they knew my nationality when they caught me. They obviously would have preferred me to have been British - this would've been first prize. And it took a long time for the British status to fall away. (...) Because it's dangerous to be British, I think, I think American, French and British - these are the top three. So, yeah, they kidnapped me because I just was non-Muslim." McGowan was taken from a restaurant in Timbuktu while touring on motorcycles with friends - but he was the last to be accounted for. One of the group, a German, was killed in the kidnapping. Another, from the Netherlands, was freed by a French commandos raid two years ago. Al Qaeda voluntarily released another, from Sweden, last June. (SOUNDIBTE) (English) THEN-AL QAEDA HOSTAGE, STEPHEN MCGOWAN SAYING: "Today is the 23rd of July, 2013." This video released by his captors showing proof of life. Flanked by his wife and father, McGowan says he was housed in a grass hut, handcuffed and blindfolded for long periods of time. Those first, panicked few months especially harrowing as he struggled to come to grips. His mother died in his absence, a fact he didn't learn until after his release. McGowan voluntarily converted to Islam in his captivity, something that's happened to other hostages in similar situations, which he says made his time easier. His Swedish friend Johan Gustafsson, who spoke at a seperate press conference in his home country, says he also converted - but it was calculated move to buy time. He might keep the beard. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FORMER AL QAEDA HOSTAGE, STEPHEN MCGOWAN, SAYING: "I see everybody seems to be growing beards these days. All my friends have got beards, so maybe I fit in fine with this." The NGO that operated as a mediator for McGowan's release says it was done on grounds of compassion, and the South African government says it did not pay a ransom.