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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, and its effort to gain any further information about where they are and what may have happened to them.
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 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 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 sheiks 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.
The family of Louisa Akavi have today released a statement expressing their concerns for her safety.
“Our family misses her very much and is concerned for her safety.
“We think about her every day and hope she feels that and finds strength in that. We know she is thinking of us and that she will be worried about us too.
“We miss Louisa very much. We love her and we just want her home.”
The family said the experienced nurse knew the risks of the job and they were proud of her dedication.
“She has true goodness in her heart, that's why she became a nurse - she loves helping people. She's been through tough times in her job before, but she stuck at it because she loves it.”
New Zealand Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the New Zealand Government have all been in regular contact with the family and supported them.
The family have asked for privacy for the sake of Lousia's safety, adding that they do not intend to comment any further.
The ICRC and the New Zealand government have worked closely over the years as the search for Louisa continued.
SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media