Podcast: The Detail

Hope fades for Kiwi nurse in Syria

The Detail today talks to Stuff journalist and Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins about the fate of the New Zealand nurse kidnapped by Islamic State six years ago

Hope is fading for Louisa Akavi, a New Zealand nurse who has spent decades on the front line of war zones and who has now been missing for six years.

She was last seen alive in captivity in Syria, held by Islamic State and thought to be travelling with Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

His recent death, a suicide as US forces closed in, has done nothing to shed light on what’s happened to her. She was thought to be in Baghouz a year ago when it was the centre of a bloody battle before falling to Kurdish and American forces. There was a theory that she had been spirited out and kept close because of her valuable nursing skills, but no evidence of it.

Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins, who was the first New Zealand journalist to find out about Louisa, says she is one of the terror group’s longest-held hostages.

“A lot of it’s pieced together and there’s no certainty about anything,” says Watkins.

She found out about Akavi while on the 2014 election campaign trail, through an Australian colleague. They’d heard rumours of a New Zealander held hostage by ISIS.

“This was right at the point when we saw a lot of those western hostages being killed,” she says. "We were learning names such as 'Jihadi John' and seeing images of people in boiler suits being beheaded."

Watkins made enquiries of the foreign minister at the time, Murray McCully, who called her into his office, laid out what he knew, and then asked her - “Would you keep this story secret for now? Because we think any publication will put Louisa’s life at risk.”

There had been ransom demands in the millions of dollars, made through the Red Cross. The New Zealand government was briefed but not involved with negotiations.

At the time, Western media were cooperating in keeping the names of hostages secret.

“It was felt that giving ISIS any oxygen would basically raise the stakes on what was essentially a propaganda game for them,” she says.

The group was leveraging off publicity to instil fear.

The last sighting of Louisa - and there’s some dispute - was either December last year or January. Her photograph was picked out of a line-up by witnesses to the Baghouz fighting.

“It would be fair to say that hope is fading,” says Watkins.

“One of the things that everyone has said about Louisa is that she is incredibly resilient. And that possibly if you were going to have anyone that was going to survive in those sort of circumstances she’s the sort of person who could. She’s survived some incredible situations in her life already. And we do know that there’s something like 70,000 people in the displaced persons camp in Syria, that it’s quite a hostile environment for aid workers or western authorities to move around, so could she be in the middle of that camp? Possibly, who knows. But the fact that there’s been absolutely no evidence since ... well they just haven’t got any leads to go on.”

There’s been a team of New Zealanders, including consular people, police and intelligence agencies, in the region for the last six years. It’s dedicated to keeping her name out there and tracking down any leads or intelligence, and support any chance of rescuing her. It’s a very small team at the moment, which would indicate a lack of optimism over the situation.

“I always thought there would be a happy ending,” she says. “Who knows, there might still be.

“I would still like to tell Louisa’s story ... she’s a pretty remarkable New Zealander. I’d like to think that in some way she’d be recognised ... at some point. She deserves to have her story told.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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