My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from January 5th to 27th

January 27th (Afternoon):

Lots of things to talk about again - I'm tempted to return to twice-weekly updating.

We've reached 300 days since Nicole disappeared. One hundred days was a bit issue, two hundred was much longer than I ever expected this to go, but at three hundred I will not be surprised to see 400 and 500 arrive with our search still ongoing. It was so critical to find Nicole early on when the facts and tips were fresh and new. Now it's a struggle to get anything we haven't heard or investigated already.

Speaking of leads, the Amine Benyahia in Switzerland that everyone is finding via Google is apparently *not* the person we are looking for. High quality information says the person in Winterthur has a different birth date and different parent names. Thus, we are without leads in the search for the person who was on a Riad Hotel tour and signed in at Qasr Ibn Wardan on the day Nicole disappeared:

Ameen/Amine Benyahia, born 1984, father's name is Abbas, mother's name is Monica, Swiss-Algerian nationality.

A contact not only directed my attention to additional syria-news.com articles, but also translated them! This article from back in November talks about the bodies of three women found in a bag in Daraa (or "Dar'a"), just south of Damascus. It's also notable for mentioning how an earlier crime we mentioned - a single naked body found in a bag at the side of the road - was resolved (Iraqi killed by husband), which is confirmation of what we had been told by officials (that it "wasn't Nicole").

This article is follow-up on the three bodies being buried earlier this month. Still no idea who they are or what their nationalities are, but gives the ages as 26-28, 21-22 and 17-18 and says they could be from outside the area. Nicole could easily pass for 26, but I would presume they verified that none of them were Nicole? It's hard to tell whether "unknown nationality" means they can't specifically saw which Arabic country the women originate from, or whether she could be from outside of the Middle East.

For the Arabic-speakers reading this blog, if you ever spot an article that might relate to Nicole or missing people in Syria, please forward it to me.

Another reader directed me to www.projectjason.org/. This is an organization started by a family whose 19-year old son disappeared from their driveway in 2001. It stuns me to think that the same kind of thing that happened to Nicole could just as easily happen in North America with the same lack of clues and results. Many people have commented, and likely thought, "well, in Syria this is the sort of thing one might expect to happen to a traveller", but the story of Jason going missing really drives home not only that this could happen anywhere, but that the additional technology and training that we feel our police have, still may not be sufficient. Very disturbing, though you don't want to live your life in fear.

The Project Jason website has a lot of helpful links, including this link on using psychics to help find people. A lot of people have suggested psychics, including the ones specificially mentioned in the link. To quote the link: "So far, there is not one single case that a pyschic solved a missing persons cases using paranormal means." and that's been our experience as well.

I haven't had time to peruse the entire site or to post our search, but if volunteers want to read through it and direct me to anything that might be relevant, it would be greatly appreciated.

January 19th (Afternoon) :

This morning I went through all the Facebook groups relating to the search for Nicole, just to see the faces and think fondly of the people that are helping from all over the world. While the groups have shrunk recently, and I'm not trying to grow them at all as their time may have passed, it is gratifying to see the people from Europe and Australia that joined the many Canadians and Americans (mostly Canadians). We reached a lot of people with this search.

I received an email directing me to review a message thread on a posting we had made in the Lonely Planet "Thorntree" message forums back in early May. While we used to review all the major blogs and websites every so often, that trailed off as people stopped updating. This thread suddenly had someone responding in December and people posting more information after that. If people happen to spot any new posts or messages on old blog entries, please bring them to my attention. We don't have the resources to keep on top of them all, and I'm sure 90% of them are forgotten in the archives of websites, but I'd hate to have someone post a critical clue and we miss it.

With regards to Amine Benyahia, who I mentioned in my last entry. We know where he is (Winterthur, Switzerland), and where he works or used to work (Google tells us that), and we've even almost reached him through friend of family of friends. If you happen to be Swiss, or have Swiss contacts (especially among the police), we'd appreciate if you could ask for us and see if someone will talk to Mr. Benyahia (preferrably the police at this point I think) and ask what he was doing by himself at Qasr Ibn Wardan on March 31st of last year, and did he happen to notice anything unusual there, or on the way there?

I'm reading another book on Syria, this one written in 1996 and detailing various issues with getting people out of the country in the 1970s and later. It describes a very chilling country where people are tortured and punished for the smallest thing. One story is particularly upsetting - a man comes back from Rome and at the airport is taken aside by officials for "just a few minutes". They end up taking him to prison and not telling anyone, including the family that were waiting to meet him at the airport. It was an entire year before international pressure forced the Syrians to even reveal that he was in prison. Meanwhile, the family is frantically searching for him, trying to figure out what happened. Horrific though that would be, it would be quite the relief to suddenly have Nicole "turn up" in a Syrian prison this March.

For someone to disappear this completely, doesn't the government almost *have* to be involved? That's the question we get asked a lot, and it's hard to find the perfect answer. In these stories I'm reading, the government is a lot less helpful than they have been with us, but you always wonder.

The key issue is - why Nicole? If she was from the area (Jewish or Arab), then it's possible. If she was political, sure. If she was foolish and prone to being reckless, maybe. Our concern is that she could be fairly blunt at times, especially when tired and sick of being pestered. She was also careful to be modest (no thongs sticking out of her mini-skirt with a tube top like a young woman we saw in Cairo), but she did go jogging in relatively revealing athletic wear (though not in Hama, only in Palmyra). This makes us wonder if someone wasn't offended, maybe in the government or maybe not, or maybe just a random person who is a little off.

I'd like to thank the people that have approached the Oprah show for us. It is much appreciated. I'm not sure if they're swayed by the number of people approaching them or not, but it probably can't hurt. Again, I don't expect that particularly avenue to lead anywhere, but it's nice to think of it as a possibility. A story went around this weak that the parents of Madeleine McCann are talking to film producers about their story. I suspect if we could get this search turned into a movie we`d get a bit more attention. Unfortunately, so far it doesn`t have a happy ending...or even an ending at all.

Searching for the correct spelling of Madeleine suddenly gave me an idea - Wikipedia! There`s a Wikipedia entry for the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. If anyone has any particular expertise in writing Wikipedia entries, please feel free to create one on our behalf and please point me to it.

And to add a bit of drama to the post - my quiet morning and afternoon of Nicole follow-up was just interrupted by my girlfriend calling from a tow truck - she's just been rear-ended! She says she's okay and everything is fine so no need to worry, but I have to head off and pick her up from the collision reporting centre. I suspect she won't appreciate me posting this, but I had to share. I'm used to making aspects of my life public when my blog was used for more regular life commentary, and I still have the urge at times.

January 12th (Noon) :

Today we're going to go through things in point form, mostly because it's easier for me:

- Thank you to people who both offered and provided translations of the Portugese article mentioned last week. It is very much appreciated. I feel like I have access to every language on the planet and it's very comforting.

- A reader pointed out a new blog that recently mentioned our search. I'm always happy to see that the news is continuing to spread, even if it's very slowly.

- A few months ago, the RCMP switched officers handling our case. We haven't heard much from them since then, but they met with Gary earlier this week. I don't suspect that there is too much information (Gary will let us know soon), but we're hoping they've been able to pursue Amine Benyahia in Switzerland. We think we've found him, but he's reluctant to speak with us and seems to be hiding something (though it may not have to do with us, or he may just be weirded out by having someone trying to reach him from Canada)

- We spoke indirectly with Dan McTeague's office, and it's pretty much agreed all around that there isn't a lot that can be done politically. These sorts of things aren't a priority of the current government, and even if they were, the Syrian government is not likely to respond well to any kind of pressure. My impression, shared by many, is that the Syrians feel that they've done all that they can. And I'm not sure I could say otherwise. I'd *like* a room to room search and every person in Hama to be interviewed, but that's hardly realistic.

- There's been varying discussions about getting on to television shows over the past few months. There are two Canadian investigative shows that handle these kinds of things: W5 and 5th Estate. Unfortunately, they're much more likely to assist if they feel it will lead to a solution. That is, they can investigate unsafe conditions at a factory, and the factory will be made safer. It's very expensive to send a crew to Syria (if they even let you in the country), and it's difficult to justify given that they'll experience the same problems finding information as have - they have no "pull" in Syria.

- That being said, there is one show that has tremendous pull and if any show will make the difference, it's this one: Oprah. If people want to see what they can do about getting us on Oprah, that will reach millions of people!

- I started my full-time job at the beginning of the month. Prior to that I was self-employed and contracted to work just three days a week. Needless to say, that made it much easier to work on the search like I have been. If there's one thing I'm learning after just two weeks of full time work, it's that I'm going to be a lot more tired, and have a lot less time. I'll still be able to update the blog, but I'm burnt out when it comes to following up on leads and going through my notes. My apologies to those that write if you don't receive a (timely) response. Everything is still getting read within the day, but I'm normally just responding when I do these updates.

January 5th (Noon) :

The New Year has arrived, but it did not bring much in the way of news. With the few emails still coming in, I have to admit that my mind is finally "forgetting" about the search once in a while, which eases the constant pressure. That didn't stop another dream last night about finding Nicole, though I managed to wake up abruptly instead of the usual "what a relief" followed by "oh no, it was just a dream".

To make up for a lack of new things to write, I bring you an picutre. Out of the blue a newsmagazine in Portugal called "Sábado" published an article on Nicole on December 27th. Fortunately the author let me know or it would have slipped by us entirely. I'd like to think that there are actually articles about Nicole all over the world that we don't know about, but I suspect that to be unlikely. I can't actually read the article, so if Portugese-speakers have a bit of time, please feel free to post a translation in the comments, or email me directly.

Sábado Article

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