TALE OF HEARTACHE & HOPE
SA medic Gerco van Deventer, held hostage for over five years in west Africa, hopes Gift of the Givers can negotiate his release
After nearly 2,000 days being held hostage in Libya and Mali, medic Gerco van Deventer’s release is currently being negotiated by Gift of the Givers.
On Tuesday, Western Cape resident Gerco van Deventer (47) will have been held hostage in Libya and Mali for 1,999 days. With the help of the philanthropic organisation Gift of the Givers, his incarceration will hopefully end soon.
Van Deventer was captured in 2017 while on contract as a medic at a Libyan power plant owned by the Turkish engineering and construction company, ENKA. He was hired on a monthlong contract and tasked with treating injured or sick workers.
Five days into his stint, Van Deventer was captured in the oasis town of Awbari (Ubari) alongside three Turkish engineers. The Turkish nationals were bailed out by their company seven months later, which left Van Deventer to be sold to an al-Qaeda splinter group, JNIM, in Mali. He’s been there ever since.
There may finally be light at the end of his long, dark tunnel. On 9 April, Mohamed Yahya Dicko landed in Mali with a mandate from Gift of the Givers to try to negotiate Van Deventer’s release. Dicko helped mediate in the case of Stephen McGown in 2017, who was held in Mali for six years before being released on “compassionate grounds”.
The intervention comes after a second video of Van Deventer was released in March 2023. In it, he said this was his “last hope” and that he had been shot in his arm. The first video of Van Deventer emerged in January 2019, in which he spoke of being ill.
“I hope this video will activate any action that will lead to my release. The thing I long for the most is what they took from me, my freedom,” Van Deventer said in the latest video.
The biggest stumbling block to his release has been money. Van Deventer’s captors initially demanded a ransom of just under R23-million. This has since been reduced to R9-million. However, neither his family nor his employer can afford this. And it’s SA government policy not to pay ransoms.
“You can’t keep going to [the captors], negotiate with them and say ‘thank you very much but we have no money for you’. That’ll make them go off the roof,” said Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers.
Van Deventer’s wife, Shereen, and one of his three sons sent their own videos to his captors, JNIM, pleading for his release. The hope is that negotiators can appeal for compassion since Ramadan has just come to an end.
“I told [Dicko] let’s go negotiate during Ramadan and tell them upfront, ‘we have no money’,” Sooliman said.
“We told the wife to say there is no money and ask for ‘fi sabil Allah’, meaning ‘do something for the lord almighty’. It asks to do something from the goodness of your heart and compassion.”
Who is Gerco van Deventer?
Van Deventer received training as a medic in the South African National Defence Force. Enlisting in the army after finishing school, he served as an operational emergency care practitioner in Pretoria from 1994 to 2004.
“He’s a bit strange in the way that he likes to sew people up, but he wanted to help people and keep them safe,” said Shereen, Van Deventer’s wife of eight years.
“That’s always been his thing in life and he’s tried to stick to that throughout his working career. He loves to help people and keep people safe.”
After his stint in the army, Van Deventer spent a year working in medical sales. However, his desire to help others led to him being contracted as a medic to Kabul, Afghanistan. Travelling back and forth from SA, this lasted for eight years.
“Financial situations added a lot to his decision-making. It’s dangerous work, but he could still do what he loved doing,” Shereen said.
Before his capture, Gerco had discussed with Shereen the chances of finding a local medic job to avoid having to travel to high-risk locations.
“His aspirations were always just to come home and still practice the medical side of being a paramedic. Instead of always working overseas, he could then see his children grow and not miss out on so much of their lives.”
In need of work in 2017, a friend connected Van Deventer with a six-week paramedic contract in Libya. Four days after arriving, on 3 November 2017, his freedom was snatched from him. Eight months after the kidnapping, Van Deventer was sold to the splinter al-Qaeda organisation in Mali.
Life in the prison camp
“Because of the food, because of the water, because of the living conditions, you get sick quite often,” explained French freelance journalist Olivier Dubois, who was held hostage with Van Deventer for close to two years. Abducted in April 2021 in northern Mali, he was released on 20 March 2023 following a joint effort by Niger and France.
“You sleep on the ground. You eat mostly couscous, bread and some sheep or goat meat. There is no fridge so the meat can be hot, so it’s not good for our stomach to eat like that.”
The hostages were kept at a location in the Sahara Desert – essentially an open-air prison, according to Dubois. About 11 inmates spent a lot of their time chained inside a tent. They were able to exercise and cook food in the mornings.
“You have to find a way to stay busy, to walk around. If you don’t do that, you will have a problem with your mind because you just think about your condition and your jail time,” Dubois said.
When it comes to hostage situations, one is “lucky” to be taken by al-Qaeda, according to Sooliman. The organisation considers hostages a way to make money and this is an incentive for them to keep their captives alive.
“Al-Qaeda treats you well. The only time they will kill you is if you attack them or try to escape.”
Movement towards release
Moves towards negotiating Van Deventer’s release began in 2019 when his family approached Sooliman and asked for assistance from Gift of the Givers. In January 2019, his captors released the first proof-of-life video of Van Deventer pleading for his freedom.
The family tried to raise funds for his release through the #BringGercoHome campaign on social media, which raised R10,000 – nowhere near the millions demanded by his captors.
“[Raising money] is difficult if you don’t know how to sell people on the idea to part with money. Would you part with your money to give it to a terrorist group? I know a lot of my friends were hesitant about wanting to do that. I would beg people, if I felt I could, to part with their money, but it’s a personal decision,” Shereen said.
Negotiations stalled during Covid and when a second video of Van Deventer was sent to Sooliman in January 2020, there was essentially nothing the family could respond with.
“I knew there was nothing I could do. There’s no government funding, there’s no family money,” said Sooliman. “When [Dubois] came out, I still looked at it and knew we had no money.”
Gift of the Givers does not pay ransom money on behalf of captives, but instead provides an intermediary to help negotiate on behalf of the hostage’s family. Through their decades of work, Gift of the Givers has established a network across Africa and the Middle East and uses these connections to conduct negotiations. The organisation helped bring home Yolande Korkie in 2014 and McGown, who was held by al-Qaeda for over six years, in 2017. McGown was held in a similar prison in Mali before being released on “compassionate grounds”.
The release of the second video of Van Deventer provided impetus to restart negotiations. According to Sooliman, proof-of-life videos indicate that the captors are becoming impatient and are more inclined to lower the ransom amount.
“If there was money, would we leave a man for five years and five months?” asked Sooliman. “There’s one major obstacle: JNIM paid the group in Libya to buy Gerco. He is an investment to them, and they want their money back.”
In the hope of drawing increased media attention to Van Deventer’s plight, Sooliman and Gift of the Givers organised a mass iftar (Ramadan fast-breaking) on 15 April to call for his release. Signs with messages like, “Ramadan is the month of mercy and forgiveness, please release Gerco van Deventer”, flooded Pelican Park in Cape Town.
Negotiations to release a hostage can take years, but after 1,999 days, Shereen just wants her husband home safely.
“He’s the type of person who loves people and wants the best for everyone. I want him free so he can continue to do the good work he was doing before. I’m sure in his situation he’s creating good relationships with his captors. That’s just who he is.”
Approached for comment on Van Deventer’s situation, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) said: “Dirco is not the lead department as this case is handled by security departments i.e. SAPS and Intelligence (SSA). Dirco is aware of the case and has been since the beginning whilst Mr Van Deventer was held in Libya before his recent surface in Mali. Dirco does not have expertise [in kidnappings] and relies on the security department in this regard.”
At the time of publication, the SSA had not responded to a request for comment on what was being done to assist in securing Van Deventer’s release. DM