My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from January 10th to March 31st

March 31st, 2010 (Evening):

Three years ago today Nicole disappeared from the Cairo Hotel, or from the streets outside the Cairo Hotel. We have visited Syria numerous times and collected a massive amount of information, but none of it has gotten us much closer to actually finding Nicole or figuring out what happened to her. It continues to be difficult for the family, especially my mom.

The media interest a few weeks ago has generated renewed government interest, which is a step in the right direction. We are approaching the point in this search where our individual efforts and funding will not be sufficient to do what needs to be done. Canada needs to show an interest so that the Syrian governments takes us seriously.

Mom requested a meeting with the Syrian Ambassador this week. Unfortunately, but hopefully not intentionally, the Ambassador agreed to meet with only a few hours warning. Since we're in Toronto and he is in Ottawa, that did not work so well.

We also spoke with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and they expanded upon the reason for the Syrian police reports being "blacked out" in the papers given to us. Despite the various exceptions to the privacy laws that would normally allow any document to be given to us (because it would be used for its intended purpose of finding Nicole), foreign government documents are never given out by the Canadian government. It remains to be seen to what extent this will be taken. It is unfortunate indeed that any of this happened - all we ever wanted was to make sure no other documents were lost like that first missing police report.

We expect that the next few weeks will be crucial in getting help from the government and continuing the search. I don't want to imagine what will happen if we are left on our own again.

March 27th, 2010 (Evening):

Wednesday will mark three years since Nicole disappeared from the Cairo Hotel in Hama, Syria. I will be posting again before then, but wanted to keep people updated on things that have been going on.

On the media front, if you missed it, the "As It Happens" radio interview is now available online - it's the March 15th show. An Opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen also mentioned Nicole, though it got a couple of the key facts incorrect (she didn't disappear while jogging, and has her passport with her, but not her journals or camera memory cards with her precious photos).

Eric Cunningham with the Hamilton Spectator also wrote a column on Nicole earlier this week, but it unfortunately is not available online. He really got to the point of the matter that, while the privacy and FOI issues are a nuisance, they aren't the true issue which is "what is Canada doing to help find Nicole?" It's not that the government isn't willing to help, it's that it needs to be prodded and pushed into doing so. If the government was a parent, it would be beating down Syria's door to find out what happened to Nicole. But because it's made up of thousands of people with lots of different responsibilities, no one is taking responsibility and making this a priority. We didn't want to be a squeaky wheel, but we're finding that it's the only way to get things moving, both here and in Syria.

The final media note is that I will be interviewed on the Roy Green Show at 4:45 EST on Sunday. The interview was scheduled for last week but got bumped to tomorrow instead. Hopefully it won't get bumped again.

When we first started searching, we focused on the route from the Cairo Hotel to Qasr Ibn Wardan where Nicole was said to be heading. As the weeks passed and we found no evidence that anyone had seen her on the road, we shifted our investigation to the Cairo Hotel itself as that was the last place anyone spoke with her (the Hotel Clerk that morning, possibly the American tourists the night before). I know a lot of people would like to help figure out what might have happened, but that is difficult without knowing what the Cairo Hotel and Nicole's rooms looked like. Thus, here are some pictures of the Cairo Hotel taken by Gary during one of his many visits (as far as we know, there are no police photos):

Nicole

This is the Cairo Hotel sign. You can see the sign for the gym below it (that was closed that morning).

Nicole

This is Nicole's room, looking in from the door. As you can see, it was a converted kitchen and the cheapest (private) room in the hotel. Nicole liked having a kitchen in her room - made it easier for her to prepare fruit and so on.

Nicole

This is the view down the hallway towards Nicole's room (the second door on the right). The door at the end goes to a rooftop balcony where people sometimes sleep if the weather is nice. Right beside Nicole's room is a washroom as well as across from Nicole's room I believe (or was that a cleaning closet?).

Nicole

This is a shot from the rooftop patio on the other side of those double doors.

Nicole

This is the view off the rooftop patio to give you an idea of how high up her room was. No one was easily climbing in the window, and certainly not without waking her, even if she was using earplugs because her room was beside the washroom.

Nicole

This is the view from in front of the Noria Hotel, just up the block, looking down towards the Cairo Hotel (on the opposite side of the street).

We have other pictures that we may put up later on.

Over the past few years I've always wondered how many hits this website receives - just how many people are actually reading? I've never found a good way - I set up a hit counter a long time ago but it doesn't seem to capture what I want to know. However, we are able to capture hits on the Official Website and it's showing nearly a thousand hits a day since last December, with a spike in March to just over 2500. Actual daily visits (I'm not sure of the difference) is just 30-40 (100 in March), but even that is a surprisingly high (to me) number given that three years have passed and I would expect many people just read the blog and rarely visit the main site.

March 16th, 2010 (Afternoon):

The story story in the Toronto Star on Sunday generated some additional media interest in the search for Nicole. I was interviewed on "The Jim Richards Showgram" on NewsTalk1010 Monday afternoon, and then on CBC's "As it Happens" for their Monday night show. A number of people heard the interviews and contacted us.

Linda Diebel, who wrote the Toronto Star article, heard back from former privacy commissioner George Radwanski on our issues and he says the law actually permits disclosure in situations like ours. It takes some effort to make it happen, but at least now we know the option is there.

The Star also commented on Nicole's case on today's editorial page. It seems like the privacy issues really struck a nerve with people.

A couple of people have asked, "why didn't your Syrian lawyer send you the reports directly?" The reason for this is that he doesn't trust any other form of communication. He doesn't want our conversations overheard or the mail intercepted. The Embassy also helps with the translation and by including them we keep them in the loop on what is going on. When the lawyer talks to us it's via a translator using a secure line provided by the Embassy, and when he sends us reports it also goes through the Embassy because that way he knows it will get to us. That was the theory anyway. It's kind of ironic that of the two governments, it's the Syrian government that will let us look at their police files and reports, not the Canadian government.

As always, our goal with all of this is to find Nicole. The privacy barriers are a frustrating distraction from our real aim which is to discover what happened in Hama, Syria on March 31st. We're hoping that the government will continue to press our case with the Syrians so that the many delays that keep getting introduced are removed.

March 14th, 2010 (Late Evening):

A quick addendum to my post from a few hours ago - the article didn't really emphasize how long it took to get the information we were requesting. FOI rules stipulate deadlines on providing the information and it seems that they were breached several times. And in the end, we still didn't get all the information requested.

As someone who occasionally deals with FOI requests in my job, I understand that they can be a pain, and that it can take a lot of effort to find all the information needed. But I've always tried to work with the requestor make sure they get what they wanted without spending any more time than necessary getting unnecessary information. It doesn't seem like that's what happened for us.

March 14th, 2010 (Evening):

The Toronto Star article on the absurdity of the FOI process was published today. It made the front page, which is very good. Mom really likes it as it captures the frustration she has been feeling in trying to get the information we need. I'd have liked it to include a few more examples of needless bureaucracy such as waiting 5 months before telling us that every family member has to submit a letter giving permission for our information to be provided. I wasn't sure it would have an impact on readers but looking at the comments on the article it seems that the point was made.

To respond to the one comment, "maybe Nicole left voluntarily and doesn't want her information to be shared": I can assure you, with a 1000% certainty, that Nicole did not leave voluntarily. I was with her two weeks before she disappeared and there is no chance she would ever leave not only her private personal journal behind, but also her camera memory cards. They were the most important items in the world to her. She did not run off with anyone, she did not get depressed and decide to abandon her old life. She is not, as the recent Syrian Justice Minister suggested, "off on an adventure".

The reason for the article is twofold - we are approaching the third "anniversary" of Nicole's disappearance, so there's a bit of a story hook (which is necessary for any kind of media exposure), and a friend of Nicole's has been making an outstanding effort to help try and find her. He has media connections and has been contacting MPs and media outlets about Nicole's story and caught the attention of the Star, who are already extra aware of the situation due to my father working there for 20+ years. What makes Nicole's friend's help so valuable is that he is organizing and initiating this on his own. As someone who is quite burnt out, this is the kind of assistance we need.

As always, our strategy for finding Nicole continues to evolve. We're hoping to have some sort of movement as the end of March approaches, but if I've learned anything from this ordeal it's that things rarely happen on schedule.

March 13th, 2010 (Evening):

There should be an article on the search for Nicole in the Toronto Star tomorrow (Sunday). We believe it will concentrate on the absurd Freedom of Information situations we've found ourselves in recently. The Star interviewed my mother and I earlier this week.

I'd like to thank "Marco" for his recent donation. Mom sends thank you letters or emails to all donors but his email bounced so she asked me to mention it here.

I intend to post again tomorrow but I thought I'd put this out quickly in case people check in early and want to read the Star.

February 22nd, 2010 (Evening):

I am having a tough time generating the enthusiasm for not only updating the blog, but even responding to emails from people with suggestions and offers to help. If you've emailed, my apologies for not getting back to you sooner. Sometimes it all feels very hopeless and it's hard to get out of that funk.

In Syria we've had a setback in our investigation that we're still trying to figure out. Their justice system is very opaque to us and we've been unable to get explanations as to what it really means. Are all Syrian investigations very slow, taking years to complete and follow up? Or is there some reason specific to us that is causing the delay. Is someone trying to slow things down in hopes we will go away? For all we know it's just regular corruption - things only happen if you bribe the right people and we are just unaware of the necessity (and the means and desire).

We've received the information requested from Ottawa. In one of many ironic twists, they are denying us access to documents that our lawyer in Syria gave to the Embassy to give to us. That is, the police gave our lawyer some reports, our lawyer gave them to the Embassy to pass along to us securely, but once the documents arrived in Ottawa, the privacy zealots decided that we shouldn't be allowed to see them. And they have still decided we can't see them - different privacy folks have denied us access this time as well. It is mind-numbing how frustrating and obtuse these processes can be.

Several native Syrians have reached me in the past few weeks offering to help. They've pointed me to some Syrian news articles involving kidnappers. Apparently it's a bit more common than I would have expected - another blind spot as a result of growing up in Canada and not Syria.

A friend of Nicole's who continues to pursue the case with great vigour asked a number of questions about the hotel layout that got us thinking. My mom pointed out that beside Nicole's room was a washroom and the outside balcony, while across the hall was another washroom - so a small amount of noise may not have been noticed. There was also no deadbolt on the door so if someone had a key they could get in. Having traveled as much as she had, there's no way Nicole was a light sleeper (sharing a room in a hostel is agony for light sleepers) so possibly she was attacked and silenced too quickly to make a huge noise? It's one of many options.

As Gary mentioned, he's never seen a camera or photograph in the hands of Syrian police. Their investigation methods are very different from ours and one can't help but think that they're less effective. Photos of the hotel and route and people have been very helpful to us, and we had to take them all ourselves. Or maybe they have lots of photos for us but our own government isn't allowing us to see them?

January 31st, 2010 (Afternoon):

For 2010 I've decided to update every three weeks instead of every two weeks. As expected, there isn't a lot of new developments these days so I'm sure I'll have trouble finding items to mention even on the new schedule.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (well, really the Information Office for the Federal government, not Foreign Affairs directly) provided us with information on Nicole as per our Freedom of Information request. Unfortunately, the information wasn't complete. And it's all .jpg files so it's not searchable. We contacted them and they sent more data. But it's not complete either - it only goes to February 2009 but we were supposed to get the information through to June 2009. This is troubling because there are items from that time period that we're very interested in reading.

It is also very difficult for us to go read everything (again) mostly because we've been through most of it so many times before that our eyes will glaze and we'll miss new information. Having lived and breathed this for so many years now, reviewing the huge amounts of information we've gathered is a big task. And while we'll certainly find new notes on the internal communications between the Embassy and Ottawa and so on, we may not find anything that will help us find Nicole.

Last week I received an email from a Syrian who had not heard about Nicole going missing until recently. This gives us hope that someone who knows information in Syria may still not know who to contact, or even that we're looking for Nicole. It's unlikely, but there's always a bit of hope. As our new contact says, it's important to get someone local looking into things, but it's tricky to find someone willing to dig who can't be influenced by the people/person we're looking for.

People still ask about Nicole here in Canada too. Yesterday I was at a card tournament and an opponent who I had never met before mentioned that he had been following along and wanted to know if there was any good news. My mom still gets asked every so often as well. It makes me feel good about people in general that we were able to reach so many and that they cared enough to read along for a little while and keep up on what was happening. This would have been so much more difficult without the Internet and relying on the newspapers for publicity - things stay in the headlines for such a short period that no one would remember Nicole once a few months passed let alone nearly three years.

We received another donation out of the blue recently. This is an addition to a generous donor who contributed at Christmas for the third year running (and fifth donation total). They were both greatly appreciated as there are ongoing bills for lawyers in Damascus and our private investigation team. We were pleasantly surprised to see the new donation - as I said, it makes me feel good about people.

January 10th, 2010 (Afternoon):

A month ago I received this email:

From: mike mugaara (mikemugaara@ymail.com) Sent: December 7, 2009 10:00:58 AM To: mattv99@hotmail.com

please call +27730937206. Nicole

A number of thoughts came to mind upon reading this:

1) It's another extortion attempt. 2) It's finally someone with information on Nicole 3) It's Nicole herself emailing - she managed to get a few seconds at a computer.

Much as I wanted it to be #3, the "Please" suggested it wasn't - Nicole wouldn't say "Please" if she was hurriedly writing an email.

And much as I wanted it to be #2, the odds were against it. We traced the number to a South African phone number, which is a bit off the radar for where she might be. And we get a number of "please call I have information" type emails and they are all scams.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be #1. They had a good story for a while, and we wasted a bunch of money on long distance calls, but eventually it came out - we just need to wire $1600 to transport her to someplace safe. Anytime you're asked to wire something, it's a scam - it's true for any Internet transaction, and it's true for extortion attempts.

It also doesn't make any sense - we'll pay up to $20,000 for Nicole, no questions asked. Why settle for $1600? Criminals are stupid. And these criminals who prey on families of missing people are particularly vile and disgusting, though I'm sure they have some way of rationalizing their behaviour to themselves. The RCMP were a big help on this one and hopefully we can get this "Mike" guy arrested like we did with the guys in Spain back in 2007. I've included the actual email in case they try it again with someone else and they want to Google the name. I would not be surprised if that is the person's real name.

It's been a while since we've had any real leads or "hope". That is, during the exchanges with "Mike", it's easy to allow yourself to think, "what if she really is alive and he's got her?" And during those moments, my heart lifts and a great weight goes away and it's a really exciting moment. But experience quickly brings me back down - I've had a lot of hope a lot of times so far, and it's never worked out. It shows me how much I'm still desperately hoping we'll find her, even though the odds are very much against it.

Though it may seem like it, this extortion adventure has not been why three weeks have passed since my last post - I was just distracted by the holidays. Very little happens over the holidays, either here or in Syria, so there isn't much to report.

There has still been no progress on the FOI request with the Canadian government for all the information relating to the search.

We are awaiting the results of some legal activity in Syria involving the search for Nicole. As is always the case with Syria, we originally expected answers/results several months ago (July?) but things continue to move at their own pace. It is very frustrating.

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