Six-year search for NZ nurse abducted by Isis

By Jane Patterson, RNZ political editor

A New Zealand nurse working for the Red Cross was captured by Islamic State (IS) in Syria more than five years ago, and there are now public pleas for any information that could help bring her home.

The fate of 62-year-old Louisa Akavi, kidnapped by armed gunmen in 2013, remains unknown - weeks after victory was declared against the violent militant organisation. She was born in Rarotonga, brought up in New Zealand and was based on the Kāpiti Coast, north of Wellington, before she went to Syria.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has broken its silence after many years, calling for information that could help to locate Louisa and two ICRC drivers, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes, both Syrian nationals.

It said following the fall of the last territory held by Islamic State, it feared there was "an extra risk of losing track of Louisa".

But it said it remained hopeful it could instead open new opportunities to learn more about her "whereabouts and wellbeing".

"We remind everyone that she is a victim of a kidnapping, and a hostage who has been held for many years."

RNZ, along with several other New Zealand and international media outlets, has been operating for several years under an agreement with the New Zealand government not to publish her story in the belief reporting on her plight could make any situation she was in more dangerous.

RNZ has decided to tell her story now the ICRC has gone public with what happened to Akavi and the two drivers.

It was Louisa's 17th field mission as a Red Cross nurse and she has now been held longer than anyone in the aid organisation's 156-year history. She was no stranger to high-risk situations, having survived an attack on the ICRC hospital in Chechnya in 1996 when gunmen killed six Red Cross delegates.

But she would continue to work in conflict zones, and on 13 October 2013, Louisa, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes were travelling in a Red Cross convoy delivering supplies to medical facilities in Idlib in north western Syria. The vehicles were stopped by armed men, seven people were abducted and four were released the next day.

Their abduction came at a time of incredible violence and turbulence, it was the year in which chemical attacks were launched against civilians in Syria, the power battle between Russia and the United States was playing out in the United Nations as the world watched on with shock and outrage, and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was fighting to keep control of major cities in the face of the onslaught from rebel forces.  

ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart said in the first years of Ms Akavi's captivity they were in "active communication" with IS in Syria but were not able to persuade them to release her, and after that "communication fell off".

"We are speaking out today to publicly honour and acknowledge Louisa's, Alaa's, and Nabil's hardship and suffering.

"We also want our three colleagues to know that we've always continued to search for them and we are still trying our hardest to find them. We are looking forward to the day we can see them again."

The Red Cross search

The search for Louisa, Alaa and Nabil "has consumed" the ICRC since 2013, he said.

"At times, we've felt Louisa's freedom was close at hand. At other times, the trail seemed lost," Stillhart said.

"We sadly lost track of Alaa and Nabil shortly after their abduction, but we've never stopped looking for the three of them."

Because of the nature of its work, he said, the ICRC had relationships with "armed actors" and they had tried as many avenues as possible.

"We tried to reach out to and influence the [Islamic State group] leadership by speaking to sheikhs in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

"We spoke to prisoners in the Middle East who might be able to guide us towards fresh information."

Over the years new details would filter through indicating Louisa was "moved around a lot", including to Raqqa.

In late 2017, when ISIS was starting to lose its grip on its territory and people were fleeing - there was a breakthrough. The ICRC had gathered information from people in 'internally displaced camps' in Iraq, people who had been treated by Louisa.

The last "concrete" information on her whereabouts was in late 2018; that she'd been in places like Al-Susah and Al-Bukamal (Abu Kamal), close to the Syrian-Iraqi border near the Euphrates River.

That was "incredible" information to receive, Stillhart said.

"Apparent confirmation of her location, that she was still alive and that she was still doing what she is trained to do and has long done - providing medical care in a conflict zone."

There was obviously much they don't know about her day-to-day life in recent years, he said.

"We know that she is a nurse who has been held by [Islamic State]."

"We know that she has provided medical care to people in the community where she was held.

"Even as a captive, she remained consistent with her humanitarian roots as a nurse in a conflict zone helping people in need."

It was the "deepest hope" of the ICRC "someone, somewhere" could give it more information about the trio's situation, Stillhart said.

RNZ approached a close family member of Louisa's; they said they were not yet ready to talk about her publicly as there was still a lot of emotion and upset, and they were just waiting to see her once again

NZ Government's role

The ICRC and the New Zealand government have worked closely over the years as the search for Louisa continued.

Since 2015, RNZ has agreed not to publish any stories identifying Louisa as a hostage. That was on the basis coverage of her situation could endanger her life, that she could become a target for IS propaganda or create other consequences that could put her at risk if she became high profile, or as one unnamed New Zealand official put it, "the more value that is seen to be attached to Louisa, the more prized she is by her captors".

Two other hostages, British journalist John Cantlie and Italian priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, have been openly named in international media reports in past years. Various news articles have alluded to a third, western hostage. When media outlets were contacted by the New Zealand government about the risk to Louisa, references identifying her more closely were changed or removed, in keeping with non-publication agreements being observed by other media organisations.

Over the years there would be "hot and cold" periods where news of Louisa would emerge through various intelligence and media sources but there were long stretches - up to a year - where there was complete silence and the wait continued. As the final push to topple the last IS bastion in Baghouz started in January this year, there was intelligence she was "likely" alive, after a source gave positive identifications when shown montages of people on the ground in the chaos of the town.

That sparked renewed hope and the efforts to locate her pushed on. The government's "working theory" was that her skills as a nurse and midwife had enabled her to stay alive.

There have been a range of scenarios under consideration: that she would be found by the Syrian Defence Force (SDF) when it finally took Baghouz; her escaping and turning up in an "internally displaced persons" camp; her remaining in captivity; and being executed as the last ISIS fighters fled into the desert; or being killed in the course of battle.

A report in the UK Times in early February said ISIS was "seeking a deal" with the US-backed Kurdish-Arab forces, asking for safe passage "in return for the release of hostages they claim to have".  The story named John Cantlie, the Italian priest, and "another westerner", believed to be Louisa. The Times was told the three hostages had "been mentioned by IS prisoners and family members" caught fleeing the town of Foqani Baghuz. The Australian newspaper also ran the story on February 8 this year, about "the fates of New Zealand, British and Italian hostages" referring to a "female Red Cross nurse from New Zealand".

The article referred to John Cantlie being abducted while working with the US photojournalist James Foley, who was beheaded and the video then published by ISIS in 2014. Of Father Dall'Oglio, AP reported he disappeared in Raqqa after living in Syria for more than 30 years "when he went to discuss the security of the city's Christian community with [Islamic State]". It said IS had never admitted to holding him and it was thought he was killed soon after his abduction. As for the Red Cross staff taken in 2013, all except Louisa, whose identity had not been officially released, were freed.

Even in the past few weeks "active leads" have been pursued, including a sighting in one of the massive displaced persons' camps in Syria; New Zealand government representatives were able to get into the camp but the woman thought to be Louisa was not her, but a woman from Iraq. Many of the people there have some link to IS so if Louisa is among them, her situation remains dangerous; it would not be easy or necessarily safe for her to make herself known to the SDF officials who run the camps, which have thousands of people coming and going with little security.

People are processed by the SDF as they want to know whether people are connected to IS or if they are civilians; according to the New Zealand official that was one way New Zealand might be able to find out if she was in one of those camps. Coalition allies "who could help" are also on the ground, with strategically placed New Zealand defence and intelligence personnel, working under the Operation Inherent Resolve mandate.

If Louisa was in a camp, the government official said, they would become aware of that "sooner or later". However it has been very difficult for New Zealand officials or allies to follow up leads and physically search for Louisa amidst the lawlessness and ongoing conflict between the last of the IS fighters, the SDF and coalition forces and so there is still a great deal of uncertainty about what has happened to her.

The New Zealand government would not make any comment for this story. Its position remains that while there is any possibility she is alive it does not want to contribute to any media coverage for now. However, either the Foreign Minister or the Prime Minister are likely to comment later today.

'You owe me dinner'

A colleague of Louisa's, Avril Patterson, describes her as "incredibly tough, resilient and with has a sharp sense of humour".

Avril is the ICRCs health coordinator in Yemen and first met Louisa while on mission in the Philippines in 2013. They worked together again in Afghanistan and were set to do so again in Syria. However, she arrived in Syria the day after Louisa was abducted.

"She's a no-nonsense nurse who just gets on with the job. She's humble and doesn't look for the limelight, she just wants to help people. As nurses, we don't care where people are from, what their politics are, or what they may have done in the past, we just want to help people. And that's Louisa all over. She is an amazing human being," Avril said about her friend and colleague.

"She garners respect with everybody she meets. She can be quite chatty and outgoing, and is never afraid to tell it how it is. People love that about her - her pragmatism and no-nonsense.

"But equally she knows when to be calm, when to talk, when not to talk. And she is always respectful of other people. She's just one of these people - when you meet her, you want to be just like her."

Avril recalled when she arrived in Afghanistan and Louisa, who was about to leave, told her: "Avril, don't take any nonsense from these boys", as she was going to be the only female expat in the office after Louisa left.

"But amid that toughness, she is also incredibly kind and humble", she said.

"I arrived in Syria the day after she was abducted. I was told that she had been waiting for me and that she was going to cook me dinner. Of course that dinner never happened. If I could speak to her now, I'd tell her: 'You owe me dinner.' We all miss her and think about her every day. She's not once been forgotten."

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