My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from February 4th to 25th

February 25th (Evening):

Back in about 2005, I wrote a weekly gaming column for a month while the original author was on vacation. I have been offered a weekly columnist position several times over the years and I always turned it down because it's a never ending deadline. As soon as you finished one week, you have to start working on the next - you don't get a break. I didn't like that when I had homework in school, I don't like it now.

This blog has turned into my weekly homework - never ending, always desperate for more material.

When responding to emails and so on, I tend to work backwards - handling the latest emails first. This becomes a problem if, for example, you wrote to me in January with something lengthy and helpful and I didn't deal with it immediately. New emails get piled on top and eventually it's so low in the pile I forget about it, or find it months later when particularly inspired. So for those of you who have written, my apologies for not responding - I can guarantee you that everything is read.

Two people have commented on the possibility that Nicole was "taken" by a foreigner. She would trust a fellow traveller much more than a local (the nature of travelling) so it would be much easier to convince her to get in a car. Perhaps one of the other guests rented a vehicle for the day?

This is a very reasonable scenario in many countries, but not so much in Syria. If you are planning on committing a capital crime (and I realize that sometimes they are not planned), Syria is probably one of the worst places to do it. It's a police state where foreigners really, really stick out, and there are lots of people everywhere watching and noticing things. Syrian prisons and Syrian justice do not have a glamorous reputation (though our experience with Syrian justice so far is that it is more even-handed than we would have expected). I realize that the same is mostly true for other countries such as Thailand and foreigners commit crimes there as well, so it's not impossible that an outsider was involved, it's just unlikely.

Making it more unlikely is the incentive for the Syrians and the Cairo Hotel to blame it on a foreigner. That they have never once hinted at such a possibility, and have found no evidence to suggest it, tells me that it was a local. Of course, they could be using the same logic I am and just ignoring the possibility, but our instincts are telling us it was someone from Syria.

And if we're wrong, the other factor is that we can't do much about it. With no evidence, there's no one we could investigate. We've talked to most of the hotel guests. Any one of them could have done it - or possibly one of the ones we couldn't find. But without any reason to think they did, we can't investigate them all as we just don't have the resources. Similarly, if she was taken out of the country by someone, we can't do anything about it until we know where, or have some hint that it happened. The world is just too big to investigate it all.

I know I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, but this is so frustrating. I'm so used to every puzzle or mystery have an answer that I can be told that my brain is having real trouble dealing with an puzzle that has a solution but I may never found out what it is. My brain is still thinking that even if we don't figure it out now, that sometime in the future, maybe 50 years from now, all will be revealed, just like movies where they show you the secret in the final scene. But it may just not be like that. I could go to my grave not knowing what happened to her.

February 18th (Evening):

I managed to find the link to the Spanish article via Google Alerts, but it's no longer working - a peril of newspaper links. Fortunately, I was able to find a version in a cache on a different website that you can read here if you happen to speak Spanish.

I got the gist of the article via Google Translator (once again, this search would be so much more difficult without the Internet) and the extortionist was sentenced to 6 month prison sentence and a 240 Euro fine after a plea bargain. It's definitely an odd fine amount, but I'm not familiar with Spanish law. He apparently worked as a translator for the police which, now that I think of it, makes for an interesting situation in that he may have thought he had access to police records so he was safe. I guess not.

It's good to see that the Spanish police are on top of things - arresting people and putting them in jail, all without my involvement beyond reporting it to the police here in Canada. So Interpol does work when used properly. If only the person responsible for Nicole's disappearance would conveniently email me so I can figure out where they are too.

February 17th (Evening):

The (first) extortionist has been sentenced to half a year in prison!

At least, that's what I'm reading in a translated article sent this afternoon by a friend of the family. Long-time readers may remember the arrests in Spain back in July 2007.

I would like to find the original article link, if one exists. Can readers familiar with Spanish media do a quick scan? It appears that the article was put out by "EFE Barcelona", but I can't find it on their site ("Vienneau" is a pretty easy search term, but I never find that newspaper search functions ever work). Hopefully I can get a link and post it with more details.

February 12th (Evening):

Despite the best of intentions, I'm not going to get to more than a couple of emails tonight.

A couple of people have posted directly in the comments on the blog. That's an excellent way to share you ideas immediately with not only my mother (who reads all the comments as soon as I do) but with other readers. I'm notified of any comments via email so none get missed.

One reader pointed out a travel blog for a gentleman that visited Hama and stayed at the Cairo Hotel just a few days after Nicole. It has a number of photos of where Nicole was supposed to visit (the beehive houses and Qasr Ibn Wardan), and includes pictures of the Cairo Hotel tour car and driver. Start reading it here and click on the "Next Entry" link to move back and forth through his journey.

I have already sent a message to the blogger, so there is no need to do that.

Another reader suggested putting together a map or diagram of Hama so people can get a better idea of Nicole's potential movements early that morning. I'm going to see what I can do.

February 11th (Evening):

I decided to shift the weekly update to Wednesday from now on since I was having so much trouble with Tuesday. And my plan was to settle in and go through a number of lengthy emails I've recently received with various ideas, suggestions and scenarios.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen - it's very hard to get the energy up these days. I am going to try and post a bit more tomorrow and get to some of those emails. Once I start reading and responding, that generally gets the ideas flowing.

February 4th (Evening):

As you may have noticed, I'm updating on Wednesday again. Tuesdays just aren't working too well for me, but not for any particular reason I can figure out. I almost skipped out on today as well, but once I get reading the emails (and there's been more than usual recently), it often gets my brain going and that inspires me to ask questions or raise some points here. I still have a number of lengthy emails with ideas that I want to look at a bit closer when I'm better rested, but I handled a couple tonight.

Two different people mentioned the possibility that Nicole was grabbed the night before, while still wearing/carrying the gear from her Friday trip to Apamea. Weirdly, this seemed like something I had never thought of before, which seemed so strange given that it's not particularly obscure. I talked it over with my mother and what I've realized is how much I've already forgotten, or am no longer able to keep current in my head. I'm using our own website and notes to remember some of the most basic things that I would have thought I never could forget when I was putting everything together back in May 2007.

As my mom helpfully pointed out (it's still all in her head fortunately) is that Nicole wrote in her journal the night before she disappeared. Thus we know exactly what she was doing that day until she finishes her journal with "Now I am back in Hama writing while the sun is starting to set. Content." We also know she tried to log into her Hotmail account at approximately 8:30. I'll have to check tomorrow whether sunset is after or before 8:30 in Hama on March 30th, but I'm guessing it's before.

Thus it is possible that she disappeared between the Internet Cafe (which, by the way, she used instead of the Cairo Hotel internet connection because it was cheaper) and the hotel on the Friday night. This doesn't seem too likely, however, as the cafe is filled with people, and the hotel is only two blocks away along busy streets. Once again, people would have noticed, and Nicole would have made a huge scene. Nicole would have already eaten by sunset, and she wouldn't have wandered the streets alone at night in the dark - she was always very careful.

In truth, the last thing we know for certain about Nicole's movements are that she wrote in her journal and attempted to login to her email account. After that we only have the hotel clerk's word that she left at 8:30 the next morning - there are no other witnesses. But that just brings me full circle to my post back on January 20th where we can't come up with a plausible scenario where she disappears without anyone knowing.

Is all of this telling us that it must have been someone she knew or in some way trusted? Our original scenario of someone giving her a ride or otherwise leading her someplace private seems more and more likely, but who would have a car other than a local? How would she know any of the locals except the ones at the hotel?

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