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Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi, who was captured by Islamic State in 2013 (Supplied / International Committee of the Red Cross)
Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi, who was captured by Islamic State in 2013 (Supplied / International Committee of the Red Cross)

SocietyApril 15, 2019

Who is Louisa Akavi? The ISIS captive’s lifetime of service

Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi, who was captured by Islamic State in 2013 (Supplied / International Committee of the Red Cross)
Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi, who was captured by Islamic State in 2013 (Supplied / International Committee of the Red Cross)

Reports broke this morning that a New Zealand Red Cross nurse had been captured by ISIS militants in Syria in 2013, and she had been held in captivity ever since. So who is Louisa Akavi? Kim Griggs reports in this piece first published by Radio NZ.

A New Zealand nurse kidnapped by Islamic State devoted her life to looking after people in desperate and far-flung corners of the world.

From Louisa Akavi’s first assignment in Malaysia in 1987, to care for Vietnamese boat people, to her narrow escape from death in Chechnya in 1996, to her assignment in Syria in 2013, Ms Akavi has been the epitome of the Red Cross motto “With humanity, towards peace”.

A Cook Islander who was born in Rarotonga and brought up in New Zealand, Ms Akavi trained at Wellington Hospital and worked as a staff nurse for two years after she’d completed her training in 1977. She later went to Scotland to do midwifery training and, like many New Zealanders, did two year’s work experience in London.

The midwifery training, she told PhD student Jill Caughley in 2001, has stood her in good stead for her Red Cross work.

When she came home she worked again at Wellington Hospital until a conversation with a nursing colleague who had just returned from Quetta in Pakistan.

“She was talking about her experiences with the Red Cross and how much she enjoyed it, the travelling she did … this sounds interesting, so I contacted [New Zealand Red Cross],” Ms Akavi said in her 2001 interview.

She was, on her first assignment to Pulau Bidong in Malaysia, working as a midwife and head nurse, and ran the 40-bed hospital. She “never had to work so hard, almost to a standstill”, she said in the 2001 interview.

But hard work did not daunt her.

There followed a slew of international assignments – Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines and more.

In Somalia she would be tucked into the middle seat of a car surrounded by local staff who offered her their protection. If bullets were fired they would be the first hit, she said in 2010.

In Afghanistan she said she was “lucky enough” to go into their homes, something usually granted by the male head of the house. “The women are amazing. They are so tough. They are so strong.”

In Baghdad she helped restock hospitals with medical supplies and lived in a hotel under a curfew.

In the Philippines she visited and registered prisoners on the troubled island of Mindanao, home to more than 1000 jails.

She survived a brutal and fatal attack on the Red Cross in Chechyna when six of her colleagues, including Sheryl Thayer from New Zealand, were killed.

The Red Cross staff – four nurses, one administrator and a construction worker – ran a medical centre in a hospital compound at Noviye Atagi, 17km from the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Despite a truce having just been declared, masked gunmen forced their way into the hospital before dawn and went room to room using guns with silencers to slaughter the six. Ms Akavi was sleeping in the next room to Ms Thayer but survived because her locked door stopped the attackers.

It was, at the time, the worst premeditated attack in the 133-year history of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ms Akavi travelled home with the body of Ms Thayer.

Asked how she coped – and declared herself ready to return to work just two months later – she said it was like “getting back on the horse after you’ve fallen off”.

In 1999, she was awarded the Red Cross’s highest honour for nurses, the Florence Nightingale Medal. The award, the Red Cross said, was for nurses who showed exceptional courage and devotion. Ms Thayer had been given the medal posthumously in 1997.

In 2003, she and another New Zealand nurse Judy Owen went to Iraq, and then a decade later she went back to the Middle East to Syria.

In October 2013 gunmen kidnapped six Red Cross workers and a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer after stopping their convoy along a roadside in northern Syria. The team were returning to Damascus when the abduction took place near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib.

The others were all released; Ms Akavi was not.

She was asked in the 2010 interview with the Kapiti Observer if her work restored her belief in humanity or made her more disheartened.

“It does become a little bit hard, but it is the small things,” she said.

“I know that I can make a difference, a small difference.”

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