Revealed: Kiwi nurse held hostage by Islamic State for more than five years

A Kiwi nurse working for the Red Cross who was kidnapped in Syria over five years ago could still be alive.

Louisa Akavi was taken hostage in October 2013, and has been at risk of execution all that time. Her captors were the same Islamic State (IS) terrorists that carried out several beheadings.

The Government has kept Akavi's capture secret the entire time with cooperation from Newshub and other media, as desperate efforts have been made to negotiate her release.

But now the New York Times has made her name public - ending any ability to keep it quiet.

The official line from the New Zealand Government is that nobody knows whether she is alive or dead. But the recent fall of Islamic State means there is doubt about whether she is still captive.

Akavi, who is from Porirua, has been an aid worker for more than 30 years. In 1996, she narrowly survived a massacre in Chechnya in which six of her Red Cross colleagues were gunned down in their sleep.

International Committee of the Red Cross - Louisa Akavi
Louisa Akavi. Photo credit: International Committee of the Red Cross

She spoke to TV3 about this in 2003, saying: "I heard two shots. Muffled, but they were two shots and then I heard the boots, making a lot of noise, running up the stairs to the next landing."

In the 2003 interview, she also said: "We all know these risks when we take these assignments."

In 2013 her assignment was Syria, and that October Akavi was part of a group of seven Red Cross workers kidnapped in northwest Syria.

Their four vehicle convoy had been delivering medical supplies in the war-torn Idlib province. It was on its way back to the capital Damascus when IS gunmen blocked the road and opened fire.

The six international workers and one Syrian volunteer were kidnapped and taken away. A day later four were released, but Akavi and two others were held despite pleas by the Red Cross.

Akavi was held by a group of IS killers called 'the Beatles' by their hostages because of their English accents, and led by a man known as 'Jihadi John', who is now dead.

At one point they had about 25 hostages, mainly Western aid workers and journalists. Over time many were released, but mainly those from countries prepared to pay ransoms - millions of dollars a time.

Others were kept, all from countries with Governments which have a don't negotiate with terrorists, no-ransom policy: the US, the UK and crucially - for Louisa Akavi - New Zealand.

In July 2014 there was a chance of escape - a secret raid by elite American Delta Force commandos. But they failed to find the hostages and were forced to retreat after a gun battle with IS.

And this is why her name was kept secret by the New Zealand Government - the brutal beheadings of the other hostages that shocked the world.

One by one her fellow prisoners were executed:

  • James Foley - an American journalist
  • Steven Sotloff - another American journalist
  • David Haines - a British aid worker
  • Alan Henning - another British aid worker
  • Peter Kassig - American aid worker
  • Japanese citizens Haruna Yukawa - a security contractor and Kenji Goto - a journalist
  • Muath al-Kasasbeh- a Jordanian air force pilot was burnt alive in a cage
  • and Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker (although Islamic State claimed it was from an air strike).

All came from countries that took part in the war against IS - just like New Zealand. John Key announced we would send troops there in February 2015.

There are now three known hostages left:

  • British journalist John Cantlie
  • Italian priest Paolo Dall'Oglio
  • and Louisa Akavi.

A report from the Times in February this year said: "ISIS are using hostages as a bargaining chip - the fates of John Cantlie and two other western hostages missing for years in Syria are part of Islamic State negotiations to escape annihilation in one of its last pockets of territory."

The two others referred to by the Times were the Italian priest and Louisa Akavi.

Very little is known about what Akavi has been going through all that time. There has been speculation that she was ill and dying - and other speculation that she has converted to Islam.

According to reports from released hostages, her 12 months in captivity may have included routine beatings and torture like waterboarding.

Ransom negotiations have taken place over the years.

Louisa Akavi.
Louisa Akavi. Photo credit: Newshub.

There is speculation that while she may initially have had value as a hostage because she was a Westerner, over time her value to IS may have been as a nurse who could help the injured.

Since the fall of the Islamic State 'caliphate', there have been questions about where she is. Newshub understands leads were being investigated as recently as last week including an internally displaced people (IDP) camp.

It is understood the International Red Cross Committee (IRCC) has cooperated with the New York Times in naming her, believing that the publication of Akavi's identity and nationality will give her comfort and self-confidence to self-ID if she is in a camp.

So maybe somewhere out in the Syrian desert, there is a Kiwi woman - Louisa Akavi - who only wanted to help others.