10/08/2017 17:27 SAST | Updated 10/08/2017 17:53 SAST

Stephen McGowan Wants To Forgive, Forget And Move On

But he's considering keeping the beard.

Released South African Stephen McGowan arrives for a media conference in Johannesburg on August 10 2017.
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Released South African Stephen McGowan arrives for a media conference in Johannesburg on August 10 2017.

Stephen McGowan spoke to the press in a live broadcast on Thursday, his first public appearance since being released last week. He was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Mali in 2011.

While in captivity, he wasn't sure of his future and said he got tired of believing. After fellow hostage Johan Gustafsson was released in June, they "called me over and said, you may not know but your fellow prisoner, he's now been released, he's gone back to Sweden. Hopefully, you'll be going home soon. I said I've heard this story many times. There have been so many ups and downs over the last five-and-a-half years, you're not sure who you can believe and who you can't believe."

McGowan was moved to a different camp every two months and his captors did not allow him to forget that he was a prisoner, according to Mail & Guardian.

Although he was treated well -- provided with food, clothing and medication when he needed it -- he did fear for his life on several occasions. McGowan distracted himself with exercise.

He also picked up desert-survival skills. "I could probably build a city in [the Sahara] now with the skills I've picked up."

EWN reported on his conversion to Islam, which he did of his own accord although he said his survival depended on it. Formerly a Christian, McGowan said his captors renamed him Lut after the Islamic prophet.

"I'm a God-fearing person so I do believe. They did not force me to enter into Islam. I see many very good things in Islam, many things that I like. I've learned everything in Arabic, so I probably have big gaps in my knowledge. I see many good things in Islam but I see also many things that do not make sense to me. So I will continue reading up," he said.

"Converting to Islam is one of the good things that has come from this. Islam has taken me away from capitalism. Islam requires very strict character. And very good character," he said, adding that "once I converted, the guys actually wanted to wash your clothes for you".

Freedom was the thing he missed most about being home. "I must be free now, but it is actually very difficult for me to understand."

McGowan ended the press conference by thanking everyone involved in his release. He was only told on the drive home that his mom had died a few months ago.