The current situation:
1. Our hostage negotiator, Yehia Dicko is in Mali right now.
2. At our request the intermediaries have arranged for letters, biscuits and sweets from the two families to be delivered to the hostages at the present time. The package was taken from us last week.
3. The captors have mentioned that we would receive a new video soon; the date and place they say will be communicated at the appropriate time.
4. Yehia was requested 48 hours ago to go and meet "influential" people on the Algerian border. We have lost all communication with him in this period.
5. Tribal, religious and spiritual leaders are now negotiating with AQIM on our behalf. They say, in principle, the AQIM "elders" agree on an unconditional release but there is resistance and reluctance from the youth. Negotiations continue.
Friday, 25 November, marks five years in captivity for South African, Stephen McGown, and Swede, Johan Gustafsson, captured by AQIM in Timbuktu, Mali, on 25 November 2011. Gift of the Givers, at the request of the McGown and Gustafsson families, got involved 17 months ago, on 23 June 2015. A negotiator of Mali descent, Mohammed Yehia Dicko, was appointed and sent to Mali in July 2015. Travelling several thousand kilometers through Mali including Bamako, Gao, Kidal, Tabankort, and several villages to the North of Mali, where six different groups, including AQIM, operate, Yehia established his presence in the region engaging hundreds of "contacts" to find a lead to the captives.
The travels took him across the border into Niger, visiting Niamey, Tilaberi and Agadez and it was in this country that the first breakthrough came. Yehia "connected" with an intermediary, experienced in such situations who directed him to an intermediary with similar experience in Mali. The "test" commenced with Yehia having to prove that he was indeed a negotiator for Gift of the Givers and representing both families. Gift of the Givers website was thoroughly reviewed especially all media content dealing with the hostage issue in Mali. Letters of appointment from Gift of the Givers and the families were requested. By September, AQIM accepted Gift of the Givers and by extension, Yehia, as the official negotiators for the two hostages. They commented on our involvement in the Niger Famine of 2005 and the Korkie hostage case of 2014. This was a remarkable feat for us as within 6 weeks of our entrance into Mali we "connected" with AQIM and were accepted by them as official negotiators.
We were told that a proof of life video will be delivered to us within a few weeks. We emphasized we had no ransom money to pay. They requested us to speak to the South African and Swedish governments. We responded that governments don't talk to terrorists and don't pay ransom. They said governments have paid them 15, 13 and 12 million euros and some of that came from poorer countries than the Swedes. They said the "Swedish have money, why don't they pay". By late November the proof of life video arrived. Again we emphasized we have no money. The intermediaries in Mali said they will send us to meet people in Qatar that may help but there is no guarantee. The offer was so promising we believed that the hostages would be released by Christmas. Our negotiator did not get a visa for Qatar in November; it only came mid January 2016. He went to Qatar and was asked to take a generic request for assistance by letter and by video from both families. This was prepared and sent with him. He waited several days in his hotel then got a call one evening to meet a certain taxi downstairs. From the back seat a hand emerged and requested the package. There was no introduction, no visual contact. Within 30 seconds the transaction was complete and the stranger was gone. Several months passed and we had to face reality that nothing was going to materialize from the Qatar connection.
By March we asked that we want a clear communication as to what the demands are. The reply came, 5 million euros each and what denomination notes to be used. We said there is no government, no corporate, no employer who can provide this money, the family doesn't have the means and Gift of the Givers don't pay ransom. The reply came that they will waive the ransom if, in return, we negotiate the exchange of prisoners either from Mali or Niger; they would accept any of the two options. In return they said we must keep a plane ready to fetch the two hostages from a country of our choice, it could be Mali, Niger, Morocco or South Algeria. We responded that this was a political request that needed the intervention of the Swedish, South African, Niger and Mali governments and all the ramifications including protests from the populations as one of the consequences. We said this was beyond our capacity and control. They reverted that the last offer is 5 million euros for the Swede and 4 million euros for the South African. This process ran into June 2016.
We decided to embark on a programme of social interventions commencing in the month of Ramadaan providing populations in the North with food and water at the break of the fast, building boreholes and upgrading places of worship. We were starting to get "buy in" from rural populations. In September we went on a big campaign to buy and cut 350 cattle, in keeping with the Islamic festival of Eid during the month of pilgrimage (Hajj). The purchase and distribution was spread through Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Senegal across several villages. The impact was magnificent. This opened the door to the next phase, engage the "elders".
Yehia was taken by armed escort into villages where permission is denied to those not known. Any intrusion by a "foreigner" could result in execution. Yehia had earned the trust of the tribal, religious and spiritual leaders. In one of the villages they spoke to him "between the lines" indicating that he is in the area where the hostages are at that moment in time.
Yehia has returned to Mali. The local elections of 20 November in the North was rejected, polling stations were attacked and bombs have exploded everywhere. The situation is tense but the efforts continue right now on the Algerian border. We pray that by this Christmas we succeed in securing an unconditional release as we have run out of options. For further information please reply by email or send an SMS with your details to +27832364029 and we will contact you. Contact details for the family members, Malcolm McGown +27824509411, Victoria Gustafsson +46705584841.