Kiwi aid worker abducted by ISIS in Syria five years ago likely still being held, Red Cross says

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has this morning acknowledged that one of seven aid workers abducted by gunmen in Syria in 2013 was a Kiwi - and she's still missing.

The ICRC has pleaded for information about New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi, 62, who was taken along with six others, four of which were released the next day.

The other two aid workers still missing are Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes, both Syrian nationals.

At the time, the ICRC declined to provide the nationalities of those abducted. Her identity has been known to the government for some years, but it has been kept a secret for fear any publicity could see her harmed or killed.

They described Ms Akavi as "an experienced, dedicated and resilient nurse who has carried out 17 field missions with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the New Zealand Red Cross".

The ICRC said their latest credible information suggested Ms Akavi was still alive and being held by ISIS as of late 2018 - the fate of the two Syrians is not known.

New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi. Source: Supplied

"During the many years that Louisa has been held by Islamic State group, the ICRC has made continued and repeated efforts to win her freedom, even as the dynamics in Syria continued to change," the organisation said in a statement.

The kidnapping took place about 11.30am local time on October 13, 2013, near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province as the team was returning to Damascus.

ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart said that past five years have been extremely difficult for the families of the three.

"Louisa is a true and compassionate humanitarian ... Alaa and Nabil were committed colleagues and an integral part of our aid deliveries," Mr Stillhart said.

"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.

"We call on anyone with information to please come forward ... if our colleagues are still being held, we call for their immediate and unconditional release."

The ICRC said with the fall of the last territory held by the ISIS early this year, there was an "extra risk" that they could "lose track" of Ms Akavi.

"She is a victim of a kidnapping, and a hostage who has been held for many years."


Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters issued a statement this morning saying the Government has worked hard over the past five years to try to retrieve Ms Akavi.

"Throughout the past five years, the New Zealand Government and the ICRC have always worked on the basis that Louisa was alive and that hope still remains," Mr Peters said. "We continue to work together to locate and recover her."

New Zealand Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi. Source: Getty

"This has been a uniquely complex and difficult case. Louisa went to Syria with the ICRC to deliver humanitarian relief to people suffering as a result of a brutal civil war and ISIS occupation.

"Where a New Zealander is held by a terrorist organisation the Government takes all appropriate action to recover them. That is exactly what we have done here.

"This effort has included the deployment of a small multi-agency team based in Iraq. This has involved members of the NZDF, drawn from the Special Operations Force, and personnel have visited Syria from time to time as required.

"This non-combat team was specifically focused on locating Louisa and identifying opportunities to recover her.

"We have now reached a point where all the territory once held by ISIS has been liberated. Unfortunately the current whereabouts of Louisa is unknown. However, the New Zealand Government continues to work tirelessly to locate her and bring her to safety.

"Since her abduction, successive governments have not disclosed any information about Louisa and asked a number of media outlets not to do so either.

"In these situations the priority must be the safety of the hostage and we received clear advice that any publicity would place Louisa at even greater risk.

"Since Louisa was abducted, the Government has also focused on supporting her family. We cannot imagine what an enormous ordeal this has been, and continues to be, for them. They have displayed extraordinary courage and strength throughout the past five years.

"The efforts to locate and recover Louisa are ongoing, and there a number of operational or intelligence matters the Government won’t be commenting on."


A 2010 profile written by Stuff reveals Ms Akavi is from Otaki on the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington, a place she returned between missions to recuperate.

She is a Red Cross nurse and midwife, and has worked in more than a dozen countries and several warzones.

According to the New York Times, she was born in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and was raised in New Zealand.

She completed nursing training at Wellington Hospital in 1977 and worked in hospitals in New Zealand, England and Scotland.

Her first Red Cross mission was in 1987, when she was sent to Malaysia to help Vietnamese refugees.

In 1996, she survived an attack by gunman which left six of her colleagues dead by hiding in a locked room.

In 1999, she was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal - the highest international honour a nurse can receive.

When asked by Stuff why she put herself in such dangerous situations to help other people, and whether her work restores her belief in Humanity or destroys it, she replied "it does become a little bit hard, but it is the small things.

"It's working with the national staff who do the best they can.

"I don't know why I still do it. It's something I do well.

"I know that I can make a difference, a small difference."