My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from April 7th to 19th

April 19th (Afternoon):

It seems I've returned to updating more frequently, but I expect that will slow down with mom back in the country as of tonight. Didn't plan on saying anything today, but had some energy so I took on some emails.

As mentioned a few days ago, I've lost a couple of emails in junk mail recently, and I also sent an email that never arrived (and I'm sure I sent it). I'm now worried that key emails I've sent that were never responded to were actually cases of the email disappearing and never being read. It's unlikely - you'd be surprised at the high number of non-responses I get - but you never know. As a perfectionist, I admonish myself when I make mistakes and it's really bugged me how I've stuck with Hotmail all this time, despite the many failures and problems. I've known since the beginning that Hotmail is horrible for what I'm doing, but things happened so fast at the beginning, and I was so sure we'd have an answer quickly, that I didn't make the switch, and then it was too late - the mattv99@hotmail.com address is everywhere now.

Similarly, I'd love to have my blog back for my usual commentary on mundane things of interest to only a few, but I expect I've lost that for good as well. Hardly a grand cost in the scheme of things, but I do wish I had planned better and just started a second blog for this. Hopefully I never have a chance to apply these "lessons learned" to another search.

Two Italian readers contacted me this month (have I mentioned how I'm behind on emails?). One corrected some of the spellings of the Italian guests that arrived at the Cairo the day Nicole disappeared, and the list should be updated soon ("Kiara becomes "Chiara", for example). To take the load off of me, my girlfriend (now fiance!) handles the updating of the guest lists (they're on a different website supplied by a close friend) and I didn't realize until today that with her heading to Africa this afternoon, I'll need to re-learn how to do that in case we need to make updates. Not sure it will be an issue - we haven't had too many changes on the guest list in several months.

The other Italian contact linked me to this story. It's about an Italian woman who disappeared in Turkey on March 31st of this year while on a "walk for peace". Her body was found just two weeks later and the man who raped and killed her was arrested. Not likely to be linked to Nicole at all, but it is still chilling to read, especially how she was hitchhiking as Nicole may have been doing. I did note how quickly they found the man because he used the girl's cell phone and credit card. It has always struck us as unusual that no trace of Nicole's belongings have ever been found. Her finances have never been accessed, her bag and camera never found. Does that tell us something?

An enthusiastic contact in Vancouver sent me links to other Facebook groups for missing people. Again I'm astounded by the numbers - a missing fellow in the States has over 25,000 members and 2,500 comments. A recurring thread through many of the missing people stories I've read recently is that they disappeared late at night, often after drinking or visiting a club. Not too many just disappear in the morning on a busy street (or in Syria). Nothing about this situation is at all usual. If this were a movie, that would be enough to point us in the right direction. What story fits all the odd facts?

To end on a postive note, it is wonderful to receive the congratulations and well-wishes of far-flung friends and family regarding my upcoming nuptials. As a humourous aside, the one family member I did forget to tell was my own brother! He just returned from university yesterday and it had totally slipped my mind to fill him in. Ah well.

April 17th (Evening):

For two days there has been no contact with my mother and step-father, but that's because they've been in Hama and Palmyra, meeting with officials and doing what investigating they can. I received an email from them this morning but it was a quick "we're back in Damascus" message with no details. I presume they haven't found anything, but I also know they're probably exhausted at the end of each day, and want to keep some things quiet until they get back this weekend.

I've been falling behind on emails and to make it worse, last night I discovered that emails are still being re-directed into my junk mail. For weeks I'll check religiously and find nothing, and then as soon as I stop, they start showing up again. Very frustrating, and that had me down last night.

Staying down continued today as I read through a on "Missing Traveller" forum where several other missing travellers are listed alongside Nicole. Most of them have been found already, and very few of them were found alive. But what really got to me this evening was reading the plaintive requests for help from friends and family that so closely match our own. The similar sounding stories of getting officials involved, and setting up websites, and sending family down to investigate. One even spoke of the "cold trail" because they didn't realize the person was missing for several weeks. It brought back the agony of the search, the futility of feeling like you're just one small person trying to find someone amongst millions of people who are continuing on with their lives. I wouldn't wish this pain on anyone, and reading how others are suffering through it was tough.

On a more positive note, a long-time contact got back in touch and described how she visited Syria at the end of last year and passed out flyers and talked to people. This is inspiring, even though she got the impression people still didn't know of our search. As I said to her, on the one hand that's troubling, but on the other hand that means there are still Syrians we can reach for the first time, and maybe they have the information we're looking for.

She also suggested taking another look at the Iraqi angle. There are a large number of Iraqi immigrants and refugees in Syria right now, but we've always been told they avoid Hama due to the conservative and homogenous society there. That being said, I seem to recall someone mentioning that there were Iraqis staying at the Cairo Hotel, either when Nicole was there, or when the contact was there soon before or after. I think he said there were there to see an eye doctor or clinic or something like that.

Anyone have thoughts on Iraqis and/or have contacts among the Syrian-Iraqi population?

April 14th (Evening):

Every morning when I wake up there are a few emails from my parents in Syria, keeping me updating on what they're doing without going into too many details, and often asking for information from emails we've received in the past year. They were interviewed by Tishreen (major Syrian newspaper) yesterday and today there are television crews there doing interviews. As I said on the weekend, this kind of exposure is exactly what we're looking for. On Tuesday they will visit Hama and possibly Apamea and Palmyra. Nicole visited Apamea the day before she disappeared and people remember seeing her there because she liked it so much she stayed and read for a few hours, which the warders found unusual. Palmyra warrants more investigation given the missing two days that Nicole spent where no hotel has a record of it. It's also possible that her lengthy stay in Palmyra (4 days) drew unpleasant attention to her in some way that led to her disappearance.

Speaking of unpleasant, I watched the movie "Trade" on the weekend and it painted a very uncomfortable picture of sex trafficking and how easy it is to grab someone and make them disappear. The plot involves a teenager trying to find his missing sister after she was taken by sex slavers. I haven't concentrated on this scenario because Western foreigners are almost never the target of sex trafficking, and it makes our search nearly impossible if an organized ring is involved (potentially Russian). My mother worries about it much more - I certainly don't think she needs or wants to see this movie.

I received an email this week about the "tunnels" underneath Hama. Others have mentioned them before, but officials in Syria didn't seem to think much of the idea. Does anyone have concrete information about tunnels in Hama? They may relate to the events in the 1980s, which makes it awkward for some to talk about.

April 12th (Evening):

Gary landed in Damascus yesterday afternoon and has joined my mother and step-father. This first week in Syria has seemed fruitful - meetings with high-level members of the government (ministers and generals) and lots of requests back to me for information. It's tough to know for certain as secure communication to Canada can be difficult. There have also been several Syrian media interviews arranged, which is fantastic as we want to increase our exposure in hopes of getting tips.

On Tuesday my mother will arrive in Hama to meet with the governor again. There's a new police chief in Hama and he is enthusiastic about searching and following up on leads. As we slowly get information about previous police investigations, it appears that a lot of work was done last year that we just weren't aware of - given that the investigation hadn't been resolved, notes and information weren't getting passed to us (among other things). I suspect our lack of understanding of how things work in Syria, combined with the significant language barrier, caused confusion on both sides.

Speaking of the police, the new RCMP liason has been very helpful this week in assisting us with inquiries. In particular, we have finally heard back from the Swiss police via Interpol about the Amine Benyahia living in Winterthur, and it's not our guy. We knew this unofficially already, but it's good to get it confirmed. Unfortunately, this leaves us with no leads on the gentleman, and despite the Facebook entries and email addresses available via Google, no one responds when I try and contact them so we're still missing an important potential witness.

On a more positive and personal note, I've become engaged! My girlfriend of four years and I will be husband and wife as of October 4th of this year. We've slowly been letting immediate family know over the past few weeks, so hopefully I didn't miss anyone before posting this. Being as it's the age of the Internet, I made it officially public today by updating my "Facebook" status from "single" to "engaged". It's fair to say that I'm a bit more blog-centred than most.

And some more positive and personal news: my girlfriend is...going to Africa! Next week she leaves on a four-week safari through southern Africa. It's been her dream trip for years and she was most disgruntled to find out early on in our relationship that I had already done the exact same trip back in 2001. Given that I don't have any vacation this year courtesy of my new full-time job, it seemed like a perfect time for her to live her dream. I will be accepting any and all meal invitations while she is away - it's been over a year and half since I had full reponsibility for my own feeding.

It's good to have some positive news in our lives!

April 7st (Evening):

My mother is in Syria!

She arrived Sunday night and already has a meeting with high-level government officials schedule for Tuesday evening. Lots of emails are flying back and forth as my mother and step-father request information to help in the investigation. It feels great to actually have people doing things and hopefully making some progress and I expect Gary is itching to be there getting involved and moving things forward. He'll arrive later this week.

If you have Syrian media connections, or if you're in Syria and have something you want to share, please take this opportunity to contact my mother or Gary. I can make arrangements, or you can approach the Canadian Embassy, or you can keep reading here to get an idea of where they'll be if you'd like to approach them directly.

We've doubled the reward!

There was a bunch of discussion back and forth as well as consultation with lawyers, but in the end, Gary decided to double the amount on the reward posters he was preparing for Syria. That settled it for everyone and we're now prepared to pay twice as much for Nicole's successfull discovery. If for some reason $20,000 wasn't enough to get you to tell us something, we'll now pay $40,000, but that's it - it isn't increasing any further.

All this activity, along with an enthusiastic email from a new volunteer, has me unusually energetic today. I went through more than the usual amount of emails, and have spent the last few hours typing up correspondence and research for my mother. It does work well having me back home looking for things, though I sometimes long to be there hearing things for myself and asking blunt questions. Delegating is not one of my strong points, but my step-father has been absolutely fantastic at managing information and keeping on top of everything while simultaneously supporting my mother.

Today's update was difficult - every time I update I go through a routine of shifting an older entry down, copying and pasting the date and changing the time, and also updating the "days missing" count in the opening paragraph. Today I removed the day count and had to change "March 31st" to "March 31st, 2007". Difficult to handle that a year has passed when seeing it spelt out like that.

As indicated two updates ago, The Arab magazine put Nicole's "missing" poster on the inside back cover of their magazine. They were kind enough to send me a copy to see for myself and it's much appreciated. As part of the research for my mother, I reviewed many of the early emails from that first hectic week in May and it reminded me once again just how amazing people have been with their time and effort. Locals in Syria offering to help, travellers taking time out of their vacation to help, people offering advice from all corners of the globes, and of course the volunteers that helped us find all those hotel guests - it's overwhelming to think of it all. I just don't trust pessimistic articles about how people and society are getting worse - it's impossible to think that way after seeing the response we received.

We're reviewing all of our information and notes, right from the very beginning, just in case we missed anything. Again, if you feel an avenue hasn't been explored, or have recently come up with a new idea, I'm happy to hear it, even if I've heard it a dozen times before.

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