The search for Louisa Akavi, Alaa Rajab, and Nabil Bakdounes
Updated April 11, 2019
For public release to select media outlets
Louisa Akavi: A humanitarian dedicated to helping people in need
Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes: Caring family men, valued aid workers
A statement from Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross:
The search for New Zealand national Louisa Akavi and Syrian nationals Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes has consumed the International Committee of the Red Cross since their abduction in Syria in October 2013. At times, we’ve felt Louisa’s freedom was close at hand. At other times, the trail seemed lost. We sadly lost track of Alaa and Nabil shortly after their abduction, but we’ve never stopped looking for the three of them.
Louisa, now 62, has been held longer than anyone in the 156-year history of the ICRC. It is emotionally wrenching that a person so dedicated to helping others would have her freedom taken from her for so long.
We are speaking out today to recognise Louisa’s, Alaa's and Nabil's hardship and suffering and to call for any information that could provide more leads into their whereabouts and wellbeing. By speaking publicly, we hope to pass a clear message that we have not forgotten these three valued colleagues, and that we are still trying our hardest to find them.
We have not spoken publicly before today because from the moment Louisa and the others were kidnapped, every decision we made was to maximize the chances of winning their freedom. With that goal in mind, we have long decided not to share details in the hopes this approach would lead to a positive result. With Islamic State group (ISg) having lost the last of its territory, we felt it was now time to speak out.
Following the fall of the last ISg stronghold in Syria, we hope there will be new opportunities for us to learn more about Louisa’s situation. But we also fear there is an extra risk of losing track of her in the aftermath. That is why we are calling for any information that could provide more leads into 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.
In the first years of Louisa’s captivity, in late 2013 and 2014, we were in active communication with the Islamic State group, the group holding her in Syria. We were not able to persuade them to release her and that communication fell off.
We diversified our contacts. Given the work that the ICRC does, we have relationships with armed actors around the world, and we tried as many avenues as we could to reach a positive outcome.
We tried to reach out to and influence the ISg 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.
One thing we always kept in mind was that Syria wasn’t a void into which our colleagues disappeared. This has been a dynamic conflict from the beginning. Territory frequently changed hands. We followed developments and assessed opportunities and risks. There are so many unknowns in hostage situations - circumstances constantly evolve - but we’ve never lost hope that they would resurface.
Over the years we learned new details. We know Louisa was moved around a lot, including to Raqqa. A breakthrough for us came in late 2017, with the beginning of the end of ISg’s broad control of territory, when people fled that region.
We spoke with people in IDP camps in Iraq who had been treated by Louisa in Syria. From this we understood that she had been in places like Al Susah and Al-Bukamal (a.k.a. Abu Kamal) in late 2018, close to the Syrian-Iraqi border near the Euphrates River, the last concrete information we have on her whereabouts.
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.
Louisa’s mission to Syria was her 17th mission as a Red Cross nurse. A resident of Otaki, New Zealand, she has been working with the New Zealand Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross since 1987. She has used her skills as a nurse in such countries as Somalia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Her extraordinary commitment to international aid work and nursing was recognised by a prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal awarded to her in 1999, when she was working as an ICRC health delegate in the Solomon Islands.
She has also worked in Chechnya. In December 1996 Louisa was at the ICRC hospital in Novye Atagi when gunmen attacked the facility, killing six ICRC delegates. When the attack began, Louisa locked the door to the room she was in. That quick action allowed her to survive, and it underscores her instincts and quick-thinking under stress and duress. It is an impressive part of her story and helps demonstrate her long experience as a dedicated humanitarian. Imagine making the decision to return to conflict zones to help people in need after surviving such a tragedy. It is truly remarkable.
There is obviously much we don’t know about Louisa’s day-to-day life in recent years. We know that she is a nurse who has been held by the ISg. 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 is our deepest hope that someone, somewhere can now help us learn more about Louisa’s, Alaa's and Nabil's situation.
The ICRC is grateful to the New Zealand Red Cross and the government of New Zealand for their committed collaboration in support of the efforts to win Louisa’s freedom.