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It was a clear, cold night in the Sahara desert and Stephen McGown lay on his back staring at the stars.
Covering himself with a blanket, he traced the constellations he had learned as a child in South Africa.
“These could be the holidays of my life,” he thought, “if it were not because I am a hostage of al Qaeda.”
It was the beginning of 2017 and the fifth year of captivity for this banker who lived in London.
Every day, Stephen would get up when the sun came up for the dawn prayer, which was kneeling in the sand with a fellow hostage, Johan, and his jihadist kidnappers.
Next, a breakfast was served with bread and milk powder, and then the hostages went back to sleep or exercise.
“We were free to move around an area the size of a football stadium,” recalls Stephen.
The lunch was spaghetti or rice that was served with goat, sheep or camel meat.
The hostages often cooked for themselves over the wood fire because the jihadists preferred that their food “swim in cooking oil.”
Then they spent the hottest part of the day resting in their huts, learning and reciting the Qur’an.
“I would often pray in my tent because if I recited with the kidnappers they would laugh, because I could not learn the Arabic sounds well,” says Stephen.
Later, Stephen went to work to improve his aabuugi , a hut that he built from broken tree branches. With little to concentrate, he had become obsessive.
“He tested whether it was better to have more or less ventilation, with or without grass in the entrance and trying different ways to reduce glare in the sand,” he says.
At night everyone relaxed and Stephen struggled to socialize with his captors.
“They made tea and watched videos of al Qaeda or, sometimes, they listened to French radio.”
After the last prayer of the day they went to sleep.
I thought about my family, if they were still waiting for me and if they were alive.