The family of kidnapped Kiwi nurse Louisa Akavi say they love her and they want her home.

"Our sister and aunt Louisa was taken in Syria in October 2013. Our family misses her very much and is concerned for her safety," her family said in a statement today after it was revealed their loved one was kidnapped by Islamic State in October 2013.

"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.

"Louisa is an incredibly experienced nurse and aid worker who knew the risks of her job. Our family is incredibly proud of her and of the work she's dedicated her life to.


"She has true goodness in her heart, and 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.

"We miss Louisa very much. We love her and we just want her home."

Louisa Akavi was kidnapped by Islamic State in October 2013.
Louisa Akavi was kidnapped by Islamic State in October 2013.

New Zealand Red Cross secretary general Niamh Lawless said the family still held out hope that Akavi was alive and will come home, and they were holding up as best as can be expected.

Lawless said Akavi's relatives were a "very resilient family".

The Red Cross was focused on supporting Akavi's family, she said.

"We know her and love her and trust her. We don't know what kind of coping mechanisms she may have needed to use to survive for five and half years."

She understood Akavi has been providing medical care to people but did not know to whom.

Lawless confirmed the fall of the Isis caliphate had led to today's public call for information about the kidnapped nurse.


Akavi was well known to the Red Cross family and it was a distressing time for them. She said everyone "hoped in our hearts" that the call for information might yield something that could lead to finding her.

Humanitarian workers should never be targeted, Lawless said.

The family was going through a difficult time now that Akavi's name was public, but Lawless said the family had trust and confidence in the work that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was doing to find more information.

The head of crisis management team for the case, John Dyer, said everyone was working for Akavi's release.

The Red Cross was told that Akavi was seen with a "high degree of confidence" in December, and those leads were followed up at that time without success.

"It was a sighting of her in the area it was thought she might be. That was pretty much as much information we had."

New Zealand Red Cross secretary general Niamh Lawless.
New Zealand Red Cross secretary general Niamh Lawless.

The area was south-western Syria, he said.

He was not sure if she may have been caught up in air-strikes in that area, which was a dynamic, challenging environment.

There have been reports that Isis demanded a $33 million ransom to release the new Zealander.

Dyer said the Red Cross policy was not to pay any ransoms. The family, and Akavi, were aware of that policy.

The family had not made any requests to the Red Cross for any ransom to be paid, he said.

Lawless said the last plausible sighting of Akavi was towards the end of last year. She said she had no information about Akavi's current health.

A specialist crisis management team in New Zealand and another team based in Geneva was set up.

On the decision to identify Akavi by name, Dyer said: "There's no such thing as zero risk," but a decision had been made to publicly seek more information and release her name.

Winston Peters met with family this month

The last lead the New Zealand Government had about Akavi was a suspected sighting at the Al-Hawl refugee camp in north-western Syria, near the Syria-Iraq border.

But when the woman turned out to be an Iraqi woman, Akavi's status was changed from "likely alive" to "unknown", the Herald has learned.

New Zealand nurse Akavi, 62, was held hostage by Islamic State for almost six years but her identity was kept under wraps until today because of fears it would put her life in danger.

Akavi was named in the New York Times today with confirmation of her identity from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Intelligence officials told the NZ Government on Wednesday last week that the case was under review, meaning they needed to reassess what might have happened to her. Being under review does not mean that she is thought to be deceased.

The following day, April 11, Akavi's family had one of their regular meetings with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) and Red Cross officials.

This was followed by a meeting at the Beehive with Foreign Minister Winston Peters and an Mfat official.

It was the first time Peters and the family had met face to face.

The family were already aware that the New York Times might make Akavi's name public soon, and that the ICRC might want to engage with the NY Times.

It is unclear whether the family supported her name coming out, but they understood the ICRC was working, and had been working, in Akavi's best interests.

Peters offered the family any support they needed.

At the end of the meeting, Peters is understood to have told the family to keep praying, that he hoped everyone's prayers will be answered and she will be found alive.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declined to comment on the case today.

Today's revelations

Today's report by the New York Times effectively ends a five and a half year agreement by media around the world to not name Akavi, or her nationality, because of concerns held by the New Zealand Government that she would be killed by her captors.

Akavi's fate and whereabouts are unknown. The New York Times reported that the Red Cross has reason to believe she is alive, because at least two people described seeing her in December at a clinic in Sousa, one of the final villages to be held by the Islamic State.

The New Zealand Government was also working on the basis that Akavi was still alive, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said this morning.

"We continue to work together [with the Red Cross] to locate and recover her," he said.

"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."

The Government's actions included basing a small, non-combat unit in Iraq.

Islamic State territory was wiped out with the fall of Baghouz last month, but security forces have not yet been able to find Akavi or get confirmation of whether she was still alive.

It is possible she is among the thousands in camps but has not identified herself or is still a captive being held elsewhere.

Akavi was working for the Red Cross when taken hostage in Syria in October 2013 along with five other Red Cross workers and one Red Crescent.

Since then, she has been held captive by Islamic State in an ordeal believed to have seen her offered for ransom and eventually serving as a human shield.

Her medical skills in tending to wounded Islamic State fighters and leaders may also have offered her some protection from the fate suffered by several other hostages.

Akavi is a Cook Island New Zealander who owns a home in Otaki and has family in Porirua. She has worked for years as a nurse in some of the world's most dangerous places.

Today's publication of her identity is understood to be against the wishes of New Zealand authorities, who remained concerned about identifying her while there was still any chance she was being held by Islamic State members.

In the past, the New York Times was among the media which agreed to withhold details about Akavi.

In a statement, Dominik Stillhart, director of operations for the ICRC, said the organisation had decided to go public with Akavi's case because it hoped it would lead to information on her whereabouts after the fall of Baghouz, in eastern Syria.

"We have not spoken publicly before today because from the moment Louisa and the others were kidnapped, every decision we made was to maximise 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."