My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from April 22nd to June 27th

June 27th, 2010 (Afternoon):

We were surprised and dismayed to learn that the "Tips" button on the official website has never worked. It was tested back in 2007 when the website was set up, but somehow what went live didn't function properly. As a result, all the "Tips" submitted to us via the website have been lost without ever being read.

This could be a very frustrating setback but the reality is that we can't do anything about it now. We have to hope that anyone with good information would have tried to reach us directly via email, either at mattv99@hotmail.com or syrianicole@hotmail.com. I think/hope it's unlikely that the key piece of information we needed was submitted and lost. I have to assume that someone would have eventually emailed and said, "I'm surprised you didn't respond to the Tip I submitted..." as several people have followed up with me over the years if I didn't respond to them. Back in 2007 I was trying to respond to everyone, but I think I became overwhelmed by the volume by July when the Tips page went up.

Very little has happened in the past few weeks. We spoke again the with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAIT) but not a lot of concrete actions came out of the meeting. They won't share any diplomatic notes with us as communications between states is private, but they will pass along the gist of the message. The Syrian government claims that it is continuing to investigate Nicole's disappearance, but I have my doubts - there have been no new developments or questions asked in years. DFAIT is also getting blocked out of the halls of power - a few years ago the Canadian Ambassador could meet with any Syrian official relatively easy, but now meeting requests are getting refused. It's not clear why, though we have our suspicions.

June 5th, 2010 (Morning):

Two items that I forgot about last night:

The "Tips" button on the official website does not appear to be forwarding messages to me properly. We are working on figuring out the problem and hopefully no messages will be lost. If you have sent a message to the "Tips" in the past while (could be months?) please re-send them directly to me at mattv99@hotmail.com. Your identity will not be revealed to anyone.

One of the assumptions we are almost compelled to work with is that whatever happened to Nicole did not involve one of the other guests. The thinking is that it would be crazy for a foreigner in Syria (of all places) to attempt a capital crime so the odds are very slim. That being said, earlier this week Dutchman Joran Van Der Sloot was arrested in Chile for suspicion of murdering a young woman in Peru. Joran is also a prime suspect in the murder of a teenager in Aruba back in 2005. Foreign killers do exist but it still seems unlikely in Syria where foreigners stand out so much. That being said, I have checked the guest registries at the various hotels just to be sure and did not spot a name similar to his.

June 4th, 2010 (Evening):

Some good news in the past week or so - the Syrian authorities have finally moved forward on our missing person case. While it's just one step in what seems like an endless staircase, it was a critical step that we've been waiting a really long time for. We've been told that in 5-6 weeks we'll hear on the next step, but given past experience, I wouldn't be surprised if that takes six months. Endless patience is required.

Related to our impatience with the Canadian government and getting information, this front-page Toronto Star article talks about cracking down on the ridiculous delays in getting information, with special mention for Foreign Affairs, the department we're dealing with. I didn't get a chance to speak with my mom about it earlier tonight but as far as I know we have not heard from them in the two months since we were in the media. It's disappointing to have promises made but no action taken.

An old friend of Nicole's contacted us out of the blue. He hadn't heard she was missing which shows how difficult it is to reach people even with several national media stories. We keep thinking, "everyone must know about Nicole" but that just isn't true. Hopefully there's still someone out there with the information we need who might finally know we're looking for it.

Another friend of Nicole's has been working non-stop since he learned she was missing. It's inspiring to see the effort he's putting forth to find her. He's promoting the search, hassling the government(s), researching possibilities and pulling it all together in one place. Very helpful work.

May 13th, 2010 (Evening):

The CanWest papers published an article on access to information that referenced our recent troubles trying to get information on the search for Nicole. You can read the original article from the Ottawa Citizen here.

One of our hardest working volunteers is always looking for new ways to get the story out on the off chance we can stumble across someone who has information, either about what happened in Hama in March 2007, or possibly about the guests or other people of interest. Recently he's been working with Twitter, which I've never used (or, to be honest, had an urge to use). It's interesting to see his different approaches.

Last September Mariam Makhniashvili, a 17-year old girl, went missing in my neighbourhood and it caused quite a stir - I mentioned it a few times here in the blog. The story is back in the news with the arrest of her father for stabbing a neighbour. Two things come to mind on this, one is how quickly these type of things fall our of the public consciousness - I haven't thought of Mariam in months and I'm in the missing person "business" as it were; and two, this can't help but add complexity to the search. I suspect in most missing person situations it's a relatively simple scenario, a lone criminal type of thing. But you add in a violent father with a spotty history (or in our case, a corrupt police state in a town that doesn't treat women well) and you can't help but concoct more elaborate plots and mysteries.

There has been no movement on the Syrian political front, though we've been told that things may develop a bit in the Syrian investigation sometime in the next two weeks. But really, we've heard that many times before and it never happens, so we're skeptical. On the Canadian side, when I last spoke to my mom we had not heard back from the Department of Foreign Affairs. I would not be surprised if their response time to our emails falls off a bit now that we're not on the front page.

April 22nd, 2010 (Evening):

We were hoping that the flurry of media and political activity three weeks ago would continue but much like in Syria, as soon as the heat dies down here in Canada, so does the action. We remain as frustratingly far from our goal this month as last.

On the plus side, our story traveled quite far - I heard from someone in Hong Kong who listened to the CBC interview. I also just finished an interview with an author writing about missing people, and I'm meeting next week about a possible short television documentary. We're hoping that this continual media exposure will keep the story in people's minds and encourage politicians and bureaucrats to help us.

One of Nicole's friends from Vancouver has been extremely helpful - he is unwaivering in his energy for the search and that really helps those of us who are getting very tired after so many years. He continually pressed for media and political attention and it is paying off. Nothing helps us more than people who take the initiative and help make things happen.

Another very helpful volunteer is a Syrian contact who recently made our acquaintance and offered to help with translations. We sent him a lengthy report in Arabic and within just a few days received a fully translated version back, with extra comments to explain things that may seem strange to us. We now have two native Syrians providing translation and we're extremely grateful to them both for their help.

Given our recent issues with getting information from Foreign Affairs, it is no surprise that it recently received a failing grade at handling FOI requests. We fully experienced the 163 days it takes DFAIT to complete a request and were not impressed.

Twice this week I've been asked if I believe Nicole is still alive. We are always hopeful, but the reality of three years is hard to deny. A link was sent to me about police raids "rescuing" trafficked women (often the police don't treat the women very well) and it is not a life I would wish on anyone for a day let alone three years (you can search YouTube and see many examples). I don't think Nicole would accept that reality - she would fight to the end.

These past few weeks have been very busy for me at work so I have fallen behind on responding to people and keeping on top of things. When you're exhausted it is so easy to just wait for things to happen but in a case like this you need to constantly push...and that leads right back to exhaustion. As I've told these recent interviewers, we just want to know what happened. Give us that and we'll finally be able to stop searching and move on.

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