My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from February 2nd to 26th

February 26th (Evening):

I just wasn't up for updating this past weekend and the urge still isn't strong, so this is going to be quick, with a fuller update this weekend.

Once again there's been a bit of a setback in our search for the Qasr Ibn Wardan visitor. Gary re-checked the information with our sources in Syria and the spelling of "Amine Benyahia" was likely incorrect - we're now being told that's probably "Amin ben Yahia" (though as always, phonetic spellings are mostly guesswork). It also turns out that Amin has an Algerian passport, but the gatekeeper at Qasr Ibn Wardan wrote it down as Swiss. We actually have a picture of the Wardan logbook entry but now we're talking to the hotel he stayed at. This is disappointing as I believe we have a lot more Swiss connections reading the blog than Algerian. And I expect the Algerian records may not be as organized or as high quality as we might hope.

We still have no idea what happened to Nicole, and it's looking increasingly unlikely that she's alive. There's an argument that the longer we go without a body or any evidence, the more chance that she's alive and being held somewhere. I suspect this is mostly a product of hope - Syria does not seem like a place where things could be hidden for long, though I'm not sure that's always true either. From what we've been told, different areas/villages in Syria tend to have a "Mukhtar", a local person/respected elder who knows everyone and everything going on. Gary recently mentioned that he spoke to the mukhtars and their representatives (often their children who speak English) in several areas and they are of the strong opinion that she could not be held in their area without it being found out by them. If that's true, it means she's dead and we'll likely never find her, or she's somewhere else in Syria, making the search that much more difficult. If she's been spirited out of Syria, we're pretty much screwed - the world is too big to search everywhere, no matter how many donations we receive.

I'm exhausted after a long day, and just not up to facing the emails, so that's all for tonight.

February 18th (Noon):

Gary was in town this week for work-related reasons, and that provided a perfect opportunity to meet up and make plans for the coming months. Back in May I'd have said "coming days" with the hopes that we'll find Nicole imminently, but there's nothing like ten months of nothing to deflate one's optimism.

Barring any new developments, we're tentatively looking at a return to Syria in April. Gary would already be back there if he could, but it's important to have a plan so you don't waste your weeks waiting for an election or religious festival to end. You need to make sure people are there and willing to meet with you, and that you have specific questions that you want to ask and have answered.

One of the items that came up was Nicole's stay to Palmyra, right before she visited Hama and then disappeared. As long-time readers may recall, we have no record of where Nicole stayed in Palmyra for two of her four days (we know it was four days from her journal). Gary spent several day in Palmyra trying to figure out what happened, and had no luck - no hotel showed her as a guest. We assume that when her friends left (she met some people in Palmyra), the hotel just assumed she left with them and checked her out of the book, or perhaps intentionally took her out so the income couldn't be reported or something, but with her missing, everything out of the ordinary is getting greater scrutiny. Unfortunately, I can't think of anything relevant to our search that would explain the missing days. Her journal clearly describes what she was doing (visiting sites, relaxing, enjoying herself), so is there anything notable about her not being listed in any hotels?

With Palmyra on the mind, this link and its story of chaos in Palmyra, stood out a lot more than it might normally have, though I'm not sure it does much other than show how something small can blow up into something potentially dangerous. My mother continues to believe that Nicole attracted attention in Palmyra by jogging there (Nicole did not dress appropriately for muslim countries when she jogged) and that she might have been followed to Hama.

Two contacts this week really helped us out by contacting people directly. I've mentioned this in the past as well - I often get emails from people saying, "you should contact X". These tips are greatly appreciated, but it's even more fantastic if people attempt to make contact themselves on our behalf. This saves me time (thus delaying my burnout!), especially if it doesn't go anywhere (and unfortunately, many contacts do not respond).

A small bit of encouraging news - we've been told that our missing poster is still up in the Swiss Embassy. That might help in finding Amine Benyahia. I'm in the process of confirming with Gary whether we know the spelling of Amine's name for certain (we saw a photocopy of the typed passport for instance) or whether it's a translation and could be any of, as one contact suggested, "Benyahia.... Benyaya....Benyahya.....Ben Yahia.....also Bin Yahia".

Amine Benyahia doesn't show up when I search Facebook, a very popular method of finding hotel guests last year, but strangely, a Facebook profile shows up when I use Google. I'm not sure how that discrepancy occurs, but I've emailed the one profile I can find (Moroccan).

One misconception that I'm still slipping on myself is the make-up of the Syrian police. The Syrian police force, as far as I understand, just isn't set up the way it's done in North America or Europe (and potentially elsewhere, I have little other than Hollywood to go on). They don't have a "CSI" unit, or even "detectives" that I can tell. It's structured similar to the military, with a general, some captains maybe, and the low level officers. I don't believe they have the kind of specialist teams that we're used to. My understanding, and this could be incorrect, is that the same person assigned to our missing person case could also be assigned to collect the registry of foreigners at hotels, or maintain security during elections, etc.

This of course seems ludicrous to us, until you remember that for the first few weeks, our international missing person search was handled by a uniform RCMP patrol person whose primary responsibility was airport security in Vancouver...

February 10th (Noon):

A lot to cover today...

It has been suggested that we try and find Amine Benyahia via his parents and a genealogical-type search. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with how the Swiss system works, and nor was the contact who brought up the idea.

What was suggested is to go through Swiss birth records for any Benyahias born from 1983-1985 and check for parent addresses. Marriage records are also a possibility - presuming a marriage between 1964 and 1984 for Benyahias (if not Abbas and Monica, then maybe relatives). Even death records (1984 onwards) could provide a lead. Privacy may be an issue, to our endless frustration, but if anyone is familiar with the Swiss system, please let me know. Not sure how likely we'll find anyone with the right information given that I'm not familiar with how to find similar information in Canada. So if anyone has a Swiss contact with a genealogical interest (looking up family trees and so on), please pass this request on. Heck, if there's a formal agency that does this kind of thing, we may be tempted to go that route.

That being said, a reader found an Abbas Benyahia in Algeria. This site has the details. The university homepage is in French and Arabic. If people could try and figure out a method of contacting Abbas (those with French/Arabic fluency may want to contact the university and ask), that would be extremely helpful. This clue was actually posted last week in the blog comments, my apologies for not looking at it more closely earlier.

The resumé for Amine that I mentioned last week has a phone number on it. Given the France email address, I presume 06.49.25.68.43 is a regional number in France. If anyone knows different, please correct me.

I had an intense dream earlier this week that really brought home something my mother apparently realized quite early: My mom can never change her phone number. It is the one number that Nicole should never forget, so if there's any chance she gets access to a phone, it needs to still work. My mom can't move out of her neighbourhood, etc. It's sometimes these small things that will forever affect your life that are the most powerful.

In some earlier postings I commented on the older books I'm reading and how they portray Syria. I've had several Syrians contact me since to reassure me that it's not like that anymore. It's still not perfect, but it's better than it was. This is good to know, and matches my experiences in Syria.

A traveller reported back from a trip to Syria and said that the locals were strangely quiet when the topic of Nicole was raised. These are tourist industry types and it's not clear whether they were embarrassed that this happened in Syria, or reluctant to speak for some other reason, but it was unusual for a culture that loves to talk.

We've had quite the amusing/painful run-around with the local bank (CIBC) handling Nicole's accounts. There is supposed to be a flag on Nicole's accounts in case anyone uses them. Just to check if it was working, my mother used one (she has shared access). No one noticed. We asked the RCMP to investigate, they contact the CIBC, the CIBC says it has talked to the family so the RCMP report back that all is good.

How did the CIBC contact "the family"? They sent NICOLE a letter saying they were charging her $10 for no activity on the account!

My mom calls the bank to try and work this out, and the CIBC refuses to give her any information. They tell her that for privacy reasons, they can't say anything about the account, including whether a flag has been placed on it. The only way to get that information is to have Nicole call the bank herself.

Trust me, if Nicole called the bank, no one would be more thrilled than my mother, Gary and I. I understand privacy rules (as much as they frustrate me), so I can see the bank's position - they have no way of knowing if it's really Nicole's mother calling. But it still feels very frustrating when you have to deal with it. For $10 a year, my mom isn't going to fight the bank, though she really wants to know if the flag is actually there. Very troubling if we find out that people have been using Nicole's cards but no one told us like they were supposed to.

My mother, step-father and I met with the Canadian Ambassador to Syria last weekend here in Toronto. We discussed a variety of items and scenarios, and were updated on the latest information from Syria. Emails and information passed via Embassy and Foreign Affairs staff is good, but doesn't match in-person conversation.

One item that we thought was resolved was the military base or bases along the road Nicole may have taken. We assumed that the police had investigated and talked to all the soldiers that were off-base on the 31st in case they saw anything unusual. But this is no longer certain. Without a specific reason to suspect the soldiers, the police may not have talked to them (and the base commander may not have listened). We're going to push to at least have them check the records for who was on the road that day and see if anything can be learned. Again, it will be frustrating if a soldier disappeared that day as well, or came back late or something similar. But mostly we just want to know if they saw her - we still can't place her anywhere but at the hotel (which tends to lead people back to the hotel as the scene of the crime).

A variety of scenarios have come to mind both in preparation for and as a result of that conversation, and I wanted to share them here.

I am often asked if Nicole was a spy or engaged in any intelligence or military work, and apparently the Ambassador gets the same kind of questions. She absolutely wasn't, and it just wasn't in her nature. That being said, her travels could be looked at with suspicion. While with me in Petra, Jordan, we ran into a Canadian Embassay official (based in Jordan) showing a friend from Canada the best parts of the Middle East. Throughout her trip she was asking if there was any way to visit Israel that wouldn't prevent her from being able to enter Syria (there isn't, and she didn't want to risk it, so that plan was abandoned). She arrives in Syria, and then heads to Lebanon, returning to Syria a few days later (because she didn't know how safe Lebanon would be, and wasn't sure she's make the side trip until the last moment). If you're looking for spies, it may be possible to see suspicious activity in Nicole's movements. Is there any chance the Syrians grabbed her thinking she was an agent of some sort?

It really doesn't seem that way - every signal says the Syrians are confused by her disappearance - but there's always a chance.

It came up that Nicole sometimes did her email in the morning. I didn't think this happened because she is a morning person and wouldn't want to waste valuable energy time on sitting in an Internet Cafe. But it appears that given the time difference, she was sometimes able to be online at the same time as Gary and they could email back and forth. This once again has us looking at the possibility of her disappearing near the Internet cafe. I'm not even sure the cafe is open that early in the morning, but if it is, I would be surprised if there were lots of people there because it was mostly young gamers. In addition, the cafe is down some steps from the street, off of a covered courtyard that's not visible from the street and has several abandoned stores. This has me pondering whether someone snatched her from outside the Internet cafe. Is it possible that she was taken into one of the abandoned/under construction stores, or even upstairs?

To be realistic, the homes and shops and people are so tightly packed in that I can't imagine this being easy to do, or that she would be held there very long, but it's a possibility.

The final scenario, and this is unlikely, but very "Hollywood-like". What if the person who grabbed her is the person assigned to investigate her disappearance? In that case, we're pretty much screwed, though there's a chance of someone being framed just so the reward can be collected. Again, this is just theorizing and not meant as an accusation or implication - we have no evidence at all to suggest this is the case. Unfortunately, we need to keep every scenario in mind, though we really don't have too many ways of following up on most of them.

February 2nd (Noon):

The passion comes and goes for doing this search and following up on increasingly obscure leads, and this week (including today) was not filled with energy for me. The disappointment on finding the wrong Amine Benyahia weighs on me - I don't want to start at the beginning again! My apologies to those that have written but have not received a response. I was just going through some of the older outstanding emails, and I feel guilty for setting aside emails to respond to back in August or October, and never doing it. To those of you who write, it's very much appreciated.

I suspect I may also be falling sick - that would certainly explain my lack of motivation these past few days.

I haven't kept the best notes, so I'm getting some contact information for Amine where I may have already tried to reach him. There's a resumé here that I looked at 6-9 months ago, and I believe I've emailed the listed hotmail address, but I don't recall a response. Someone also mentioned that there are only 9 Benyahias in the Swiss phone directory. If any of our Swiss readers (and there are a couple), want to make some calls and see if these are perhaps relatives of who we're looking for, it would be appreciated (though that is definitely a strange call to be making).

A contact updated me on the story of three female bodies being found in Syria. They had read/heard that it was Iraqi women, possibly an honour killing. As expected, it's not likely to be Nicole.

On the maintenance front, people are on occasion using the "syrianicole@hotmail.com" email address that we created last year because it's bit easier to remember than my usual mattv99@hotmail.com. Unfortunately, it got so little use that I don't check it very frequently. Yesterday I realized it had an email from someone heading to Syria and offering to help, but by the time I read it, they had already returned! As an aside, they say that people weren't talking about it, and seemed reluctant to start. Unsettling. But my point is - please use the mattv99@hotmail.com email address, as I read it at least 1-2 times every day.

I've shifted the image of the Portugese magazine article (January 5th update) to the official website because so many people were accessing the blog that my picture storage bandwidth was exceeded! I didn't expect that to happen, but it actually felt pretty good - it means people are still reading. We have two other sites hosting photos and the official site (a family friend and my step-father's extremely generous employer) so this isn't an issue at all, I just need to store my photos on those sites instead. Again, not really relevant to the search, but one of the minor things (such as learning html) that you don't expect when trying to find your sister in Syria.

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