Hope is fading for a Kiwi nurse held hostage by the Islamic State in Syria for more than five years. The details of Louisa Akavi’s terrifying captivity have been a closely held secret - until now.
As the last holdout of the Islamic State crumbled in Syria, humble Kiwi nurse Louisa Akavi was believed alive, somewhere amid the chaos of bombardment and heavy fighting.
That is no longer certain.
Akavi had survived more than five years as a hostage of the Islamic State. A one-time prisoner of its brutal executioner Jihadi John, she was there as many of her cellmates were led away and summarily executed to fuel Isis’ grisly propaganda war. Later, intelligence reports placed her at a hospital in Raqqa, Isis’ self proclaimed caliphate and even later, after the city fell, on the move with Isis as its soldiers retreated into Syria’s Euphrates Valley.
But her ordeal was a closely held secret - one kept by successive prime ministers, our intelligence and defence agencies, consular officials, and media, for fear that any news might bring forward her execution.
Since learning of the kidnapping during the 2014 election campaign, Stuff has pieced together harrowing details of Akavi’s time in captivity. Here is what we know, and haven’t been able to report until now.
Akavi, now in her 60s, was kidnapped at gunpoint in October 2013. She shared a cell with a young American aid worker, Kayla Mueller, who was sold, raped and tortured then reported dead. A rescue attempt in 2014 narrowly failed to free Akavi. Her mother died not knowing of her daughter’s fearful fate. Louisa Akavi calls Otaki home.
Akavi was taken prisoner on October 13, 2013, while travelling in medical convoy through northern Syria.
The convoy, staffed by members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was just outside the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province when it was stopped by masked gunmen. They fired on the vehicles and captured seven aid workers, including Akavi and two ICRC drivers, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes.
The ICRC issued a televised plea for their immediate release. No names or nationalities of the kidnapped workers were given. But back in New Zealand, ministers were scrambled for a briefing on a “major incident involving a New Zealander”.
Those brought into the loop over the coming days included defence, intelligence and foreign affairs officials.
Less than 24 hours after the raid on Akavi’s convoy, four of the hostages had been released. But then-foreign minister Murray McCully told Stuff in an interview in early 2017 the Government braced itself for bad news from the start.
We were never given any great grounds for optimism that she might be released.
Akavi, a Westerner, would have been viewed as a lucrative ransom prospect.
Many European countries have handed over millions of dollars for the return of their citizens.
But New Zealand - like the US - has a strict policy against bowing to ransom demands.
A decision was made then to keep a lid on Akavi’s identity and nationality for as long as possible.
There were two reasons for the secrecy.
Publicity could ratchet up her value as a hostage, the Government believed. And there was also concern that publicity might contradict anything Akavi told her captors. The ICRC has confirmed receiving proof of life from Akavi’s captors in 2014, generally a precursor to a ransom demand. But McCully says the Government made its bottom line on ransoms clear from the start.
“The New Zealand Government has got a very clear policy that it will not pay ransom. We believe that we immediately place a price on the head of every other New Zealander travelling around the world when we do so.”
McCully denies talks ever got to the stage of a negotiation, even though proof of life was offered and a sum of money was floated by the group holding Akavi.
The Key-English governments, which were in power until October 2017, maintained no approaches were ever made to them directly and they would not discuss amounts. Based on other hostage payouts at that time, a figure of around $3 million seems to have been the going rate. But like the New Zealand Government, ICRC will not negotiate ransoms anyway.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground was increasingly chaotic.
McCully says it was not immediately clear who had Akavi.
“In fact, we think this changed several times in the early days. I think there were two, maybe three different groups at various times had control of her whereabouts. And I think their motives differed and the way in which those groups thought about her changed over time as well,” he says.
“There was a stage where [Isis] were very much involved in using hostages for raising ransoms. As they got control of oil production they became much more focused using hostages for other, more gruesome purposes.”
Contact with Akavi’s captors faltered and then stopped. The game was changing in Syria and Isis was on the rise.
Akavi was passed between groups before ending up in the hands of Islamic State - and a British national named Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John.
That is believed to be around May 2014. This is where she first met up with Kayla Mueller, a young American aid worker. The two would go on to forge a close bond, looking out for each other against their Isis captors.
Mueller suffered horrific treatment at the hands of her captors. McCully says our Government received no information about Akavi’s treatment during this time. The ICRC says in late 2013 and 2014 it was in “active communication” with Isis.
“We were not able to persuade them to release her and that communication fell off,” operations director Dominik Stillhart says.
The balaclava-wearing Emwazi came to symbolise the terrifying brutality of Isis.
Left to right: James Foley, David Haines, Steven Sotloff
Top to bottom: James Foley, David Haines, Steven Sotloff
Akavi and Mueller’s fellow captives are believed to have included US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines - all of whom died at the hands of Isis.
Their prison was an old oil refinery outside the de facto Isis capital, Raqqa.
Foley was beheaded in August 2014, the first American killed by Emwazi. Sotloff and Haines were killed weeks later.
In their time together, Akavi and Mueller kept each other strong, Stuff has been told.
In a heartbreaking interview in April 2017, Kayla’s parents Carl and Marsha Mueller said a young Yazidi girl kept captive with Kayla and Akavi had told them Louisa was sick and hurt, and Kayla was trying to help her.
“It sounds like they protected each other to me. Kept each other strong. It sounds like Louisa was a very strong woman. I think they were good for each other,” Marsha Mueller told us.
When their daughter was sold off to the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, she begged for Akavi to be taken with her.
Their captors refused and it is believed the pair was split up. Akavi was put to work in an Isis-controlled hospital - a move which sources we spoke to believe to be the reason she was kept alive after her fellow hostages were executed by Jihadi John.
Mueller endured months of brutal treatment, including rape and torture by al-Baghdadi. The US Government believes she died in February 2015 at the hands of Isis, though the group claimed she died in an air strike.
Her parents, Carl and Marsha, were shown photographs but never offered conclusive proof that she was dead. They had long harboured hopes of meeting Akavi one day in the belief she might be able to shed some light.
In the early hours of July 3, 2014, more than 100 US special operations troops swooped on the prison outside Raqqa where it was believed the Western hostages, including Akavi, were being held.
The hostage site was a compound of buildings in Uqayrishah, including a small oil refinery.
The commandos were in heavily armed Black Hawk helicopters from the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the ‘Night Stalkers’.
Weeks in the pipeline, the raid was based on intelligence from other Western hostages who had been released, probably in exchange for hefty ransoms.
Those remaining were the US, British and New Zealand hostages, whose governments all refuse to negotiate ransom demands.
But when the commandos landed, the hostages were already gone.
Stuff has been told that the raid may have missed the group by just hours.
“She was part of that group of hostages,” McCully confirmed.
“We had hoped that had that raid been successful she would have been released.”
But some question whether the raid came too late.
Carl Mueller says the Americans had known about the location for months.
Other hostages had earlier been released by Isis and had details of where Kayla and Akavi were being kept, Carl says.
“We told the FBI, the USG - the administration - we knew where they were on Mother’s Day. That’s May 11. It was July before the raid was attempted.”
When he found out there had been a raid, and it failed, he felt “sickened”, Carl says.
Why did they wait so long?
Horrifyingly, Carl and Marsha only learnt about the raid from Isis, which emailed to say Kayla would be killed within 30 days because of what her “arrogant Government” tried to do.
It is not clear if there was similar contact with our Government over Louisa.
In 2015, after Kayla Mueller’s apparent death, reports surfaced that both she and Akavi had a chance to escape, but Mueller stayed back out of loyalty to Akavi, who was too sick to leave.
But there is confusion due to the timing of that escape attempt; it appears to have been after Mueller and Akavi were separated.
McCully confirms, however, this was something our Government was told: that Mueller sacrificed her opportunity to escape, to look after Akavi.
McCully says he was told Mueller had decided it would leave “a greater risk around Louisa Akavi if she was to depart”.
“We understand that either one or both of them also decided they'd be quite noticeable and impede the prospect of escape (of the Yazidi girls also being held).”
That decision was in keeping with the picture of Mueller as a “selfless” young woman, McCully says.
“And if you think about the reports we have about the sort of work [Mueller] was doing, the places she was doing it, the reasons she was doing it, that sort of stacks up.”
But Mueller’s parents, Carl and Marsha, say the dates don’t appear to stack up and they have never been able to confirm that story.
After Mueller’s death there was a long period of silence, and fears for Akavi grew.
But in late 2016, fresh reports surfaced of Akavi working in an Isis-controlled hospital in Raqqa, at that time the crumbling Islamic State stronghold.
Stuff has been told that intelligence reports confirmed Akavi was being kept prisoner, and nursing Isis wounded. Her nursing skills and usefulness to Isis were what kept her alive.
By this time she was one of Islamic State’s longest-surviving hostages, along with British journalist John Cantlie, and Italian priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio.
Efforts to pinpoint Akavi’s location appear to have been stepped up around this time. Those efforts gained even greater urgency as Isis-held territory shrank in the face of fierce fighting.
But there was still uncertainty - some senior ministers and officials were unconvinced by this time that Akavi was still alive. Some have disclosed misgivings that she could have survived such brutal conditions when it was known she was in very poor health.
One former insider told Stuff in 2019 of fears they had spent five years “chasing a ghost”.
Any sightings of the woman believed to be Akavi were in a burqa, and going by one of a number of Arabic names.
“How could they be sure?”
Behind the scenes, however, agencies including foreign affairs, defence, the Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau were involved in talks about Akavi’s possible release or rescue.
New Zealand SAS troops were flown to Iraq in secret to be involved in those efforts, something we can only now reveal.
Their mission appears to have been two-fold: to advise on Akavi’s location and movements from intelligence gleaned both from overseas agencies and our own GCSB; and to liaise with coalition forces over a possible rescue mission.
Stuff became aware of their reasons for going to Iraq after international media reports quoted Kurdish Peshmerga officers as saying the New Zealand SAS were near Bashiqa, one of the front lines north of Islamic State-controlled Mosul.
At the time, Prime Minister John Key vehemently denied any SAS had been deployed in a combat capability.
But he did not outright deny their presence in Iraq.
Later that day, Government sources confirmed to Stuff the SAS were in Iraq, and were involved in forward planning to take Raqqa.
The reason offered for their presence was to look after Akavi’s interests. There were fears that she could be collateral damage during any air or ground assaults.
By early 2017 it became clear things had moved on and serious talks were underway about a rescue mission.
“We are actively engaging...with those who are on the ground there because they have information. They have the ability to engage if we get to that point,” a source said.
It subsequently emerged that for two weeks in January 2017, Government ministers were being briefed daily on a possible rescue mission.
It was believed Akavi’s location had been pinpointed to a house about 500 metres from the Tabqa Dam where Isis had moved its stronghold after the fall of Raqqa.
“There was a house they were convinced she was in,” a source said.
“They started to have discussions about extraction. We sent in extra SAS soldiers to be quietly around.”
The SAS had earlier sent soldiers to Fort Bragg to train alongside US forces to support any rescue mission.
But the SAS themselves were never intended to be part of the main rescue mission. That would need to be done by US Navy SEALs.
A small circle of senior officials and ministers was poised to make a call on whether to put a request to the US.
That request was never made and it is unclear why - though according to one source Isis retreated before it could happen.
But it is clear from talking to those in the loop that the knowledge of potential US casualties weighed heavily on them.
In the months following, a rescue mission was still on the table. Intelligence suggested Akavi was still alive, being moved around with Isis forces in Deir ez-Zor’s Euphrates River valley.
While the nature of that intelligence was never confirmed to Stuff, those spoken to seemed to have “a high degree of confidence” in its veracity.
In February 2019, it seemed that confidence was well founded.
Overseas media reports suggested that three hostages - including a New Zealand Red Cross nurse - were being used as bargaining chips to secure safe passage for Isis fighters.
Those reports seem to have coincided with a positive sighting in December, confirmed by both our Government and the ICRC.
The ICRC said those sightings put Akavi close to the Syrian-Iraqi border near the Euphrates River, “the last concrete information we have on her whereabouts”.
Earlier sightings had put her in places like Al Susah and Al-Bukamal (a.k.a. Abu Kamal), not far from Baghuz.
“We spoke with people in [displaced persons] camps in Iraq who had been treated by Louisa in Syria,” Stillhart said.
“This was incredible information to receive, 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.” But after Baghuz fell in March that hope started to fade. Searches of the tunnels and caves surrounding the small village revealed no trace of Akavi. By mid-April, Government ministers were told Akavi’s status was now “under review” - intelligence agencies no longer had certainty she was still alive.
Akavi is no stranger to terror or violence.
In 1996, the Otaki woman was spared when 15 masked men broke into a Red Cross hospital in war-torn Chechnya and shot six nurses as they slept. Fellow Wellington nurse Sheryl Thayer was killed in the attack. Akavi also survived an attack on a hospital in Somalia.
She earned the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest Red Cross honour, awarded to nurses who demonstrate exceptional courage and devotion to victims of armed conflict or natural disaster.
Akavi was born in Rarotonga in 1956 into a family of 13 children. She calls Otaki her home between Red Cross missions.
Her large extended family live in the Wellington region but have previously declined Stuff requests to talk about Louisa.
Akavi’s mother died never knowing of her daughter’s captivity; as she was elderly and frail when Akavi was taken, the family chose not to tell her.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Force have kept in close contact with the family but until recently they had refused all contract with Government ministers.
A nurse and midwife, Akavi earned qualifications in accident and emergency nursing, operating theatre nursing, and nursing for emergency and disaster situations.
She joined the Red Cross in the mid-1990s, working in hot spots including Somalia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands.
In September 2013, Akavi was seconded from the New Zealand Red Cross to work for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, her 17th mission.
She was deployed on a six-month mission working as a health delegate based in Damascus, a role that included travelling to different areas to provide medical supplies and equipment to hospitals and field clinics. It was during one of these runs that she was taken.
In a 2010 interview, Akavi described her work in Somalia as a field nurse “surrounded by people with guns and anti-aircraft weapons”.
She also talked about her vivid memories from the Bosnian war.
“It’s winter, it’s snowing, it’s cold. And I see on the road a child’s doll and then I see some shoes and then I see all these families, women and children with their heads covered and vests, probably the thickest vests they own, wearing boots and no gloves. Their hands are bare, carrying everything they own.”
She also worked with women in Afghanistan, and in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad helped restock hospitals with medical supplies while living under a curfew and the threat of bombing.
She admitted that seeing so much violence in her life was “hard”. But she stuck with it because it was something “I do well”.
“I know that I can make a difference, a small difference.”
RESEARCH & WORDS Tracy Watkins
ARTWORK Toby Longbottom
VIDEO Asher Finlayson, Jason Dorday, and Alex Liu
DESIGN & LAYOUT Suyeon Son
EDITORS Patrick Crewdson and John Hartevelt