As It Happens

Why a NY Times reporter held back a story on nurse kidnapped by ISIS

The Red Cross breaks its silence about a medical team kidnapped by ISIS in 2013 because they have reason to believe that a New Zealand nurse who was abducted may still be alive.

Red Cross nurse Louisa Akavi and 2 two Syrian drivers went missing in 2013

In 2013, Louisa Akavi was kidnapped by ISIS in Syria. But now the Red Cross has gone public with Akavi's story, in hopes that the abducted nurse may still be alive. (Ross Land/Getty Images)
Listen7:42

It's been over five years since the New York Times' Rukmini Callimachi learned that ISIS had abducted a New Zealand nurse named Louisa Akavi and two of her colleagues in Syria.

But Callimachi agreed not to tell Akavi's story — until now. 

On Sunday, the Red Cross made a public appeal for information that might help them find out what happened to Akavi and her abducted colleagues, Syrian drivers Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Callimachi about why she maintains hope that Akavi may still be alive. Here is part of their conversation. 

Why has the Red Cross decided to finally come forward with Louisa Akavi's story now?

The Red Cross is saying that they're now making her situation public because the last little bit of territory under ISIS rule in Syria has fallen.

The Red Cross confirmed that she was in that pocket as recently as December.

With the fact that she hasn't been found yet, and the fact that the pocket has fallen, they're worried that she is now lost — and that the public might actually play a role now in helping to find her.

But they have reason to believe, good reason, that she is alive?

We've been hearing for about two years now that there is evidence that she is alive. This was from American and European intelligence officials, as well as from the New Zealand government, going back to, I believe, 2016 and 2017.

What the Red Cross has now is multiple sightings of her, according to people who have escaped from the territory that were under ISIS control and that gave interviews to the Red Cross indicating that she was in this town, or in that town, and that she was spotted in hospitals under ISIS control, providing nursing and medical help.

Can you take us back to what happened to her five years ago when she was kidnapped?

She was kidnapped in October of 2013. She was part of a Red Cross convoy, seven people, that were returning from the Syrian city of Idlib to Damascus.

They were stopped at a checkpoint by unidentified gunmen who took the entire group. About 24 hours later, four of the seven were released. Louisa and two Red Cross drivers were kept.

She was, at that point, transferred to an unknown facility and eventually in early 2014, myself and [reporter] Adam Goldman, we were able to confirm that she was being held at an oil installation near Raqqa, in a prison that was under ISIS control, alongside at least 23 Western hostages who had also been kidnapped.

The Red Cross has confirmed nurse Louisa Akavi, middle, has been held captive by the Islamic State group in Syria for almost six years, along with her colleagues —Syrian drivers Nabil Bakdounes, right, and Alaa Rajab, left. (Associated Press)

The Red Cross had good reason to fear for her because a lot of those people who were captives of ISIS met a horrible fate. Can you tell us some of the people she was being held with?

She was in a cell with American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who ended up dying, allegedly in a coalition airstrike, according to ISIS.

The two of them basically shared a wall and in the adjoining cell were the male hostages that included James Foley, the American freelance journalist, John Cantlie, a British photojournalist, and numerous others who are being held by the group.

There was one attempt by U.S. forces to free her at one point, was there not?

There was an attempt by U.S. forces to free all the hostages, including James Foley. This was July 4th of 2014.

They arrived hours, or perhaps days, before the hostages were moved. So that raid failed and the families of hostages have told me that they believe that accelerated the horrific decision that ISIS made to behead the men, to rape Kayla Mueller.

There was one report that came from two Yazidi women who were kept, along with Kayla Mueller, as sex slaves by [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What did they tell you about how Louisa was doing?

I interviewed these two girls — and they are girls, they were teenagers — right after they escaped from ISIS captivity. They described how in the fall of 2014, they were taken to this jail cell in Raqqa. In the jail, they found both Louisa and Kayla Mueller. 

Louisa, they said, was very ill. She was lying down. She had something wrong with one of her hands and they described her as so ill that she could not sit up.

At a certain point, the two girls and Kayla were taken out of that particular cell and moved into a villa where they began to be sexually abused by Baghdadi. 

Louisa was left behind. They believe she was left behind because of her ill health and because she was older. Louisa Akavi is now 62.

And yet, the last sightings of her seem to be that she was back at work being a nurse as best she could in that zone. What did you learn about that?

According to the Red Cross, and also according to current and former American officials that we have spoken to, at a certain point, she was allowed to begin to resume her profession as a nurse inside ISIS-run clinics and hospitals.

This is incredible news. It meant that ISIS had found a use for her inside their territorial caliphate, which the Red Cross hoped would ensure her survival.

What we also know, however, is that she was not free. She was able to move around inside the clinics and the hospitals where she was at. But there is indication that she was still under under enormous pressure from the group.

You and your colleague, Adam Goldman, have known about this story for years now and didn't report it. That was your decision with the Red Cross and now we're learning of it. Why did the Red Cross feel it was necessary to keep this under wraps so tightly? 

Adam and I have known about this case for quite literally five years and and it's been difficult at times. We've had numerous discussions with the Red Cross.

There were times when we disagreed with them, where we thought that the blackout had been maintained for long enough. But in the end, we respected their wishes, because, of course, as journalists, we don't ever want to harm somebody with our reporting.

The Red Cross is changing its position now. They're wondering if at this point a public appeal might essentially shake the tree and and help bring about some answers. 

Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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