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

September 27th (Evening):

A 17-year old girl, Mariam Makhniashvili, has gone missing right here in Toronto, roughly in my neighbourhood. Apparently while just outside her school she disappeared. No leads at all, police are perplexed. Case is complicated by the family history - she moved here from Russia just three months ago where she'd been living with her grandparents while her parents worked in Los Angeles. Last person to see her was her brother who says that he went in the back of the school while she went in the front.

I have lots of theories on what could have happened - years of developing theories about Nicole expands the mind that way. You have to look closely at the family and the last person who saw her. You also have to check people she knew back in Russia - did she just runaway to be back with her friends or a boyfriend? She's also new to the country and possibly easy to mislead. Was she abducted by someone?

This leads me to a book I'm currently reading as part of the search for Nicole - The Natashas: Inside The New Global Sex Trade by Victor Malarek, a Canadian author. It was written in 2003 and details some chilling stories about women from Russia being lured to other countries (often by other women, some of whom are trying to buy their own freedom) and sold into sexual slavery from which they have a lot of trouble escaping. I've read a lot of books on crime recently and they all end up leaving me very depressed about corruption and violence in the world.

We continue to hope that Nicole has not been captured and sent somewhere as a sex slave, the details of which I'll avoid mentioning (needless to say, it is likely much worse than you're thinking). It is the one viable scenario that has her still alive, but I just can't imagine this much time would have passed without any clues or contact - Nicole is canny and a fighter, she would find a way (the book describes women who borrow cell phones from "johns" to call home and tell people where they are).

Syria is a source of women for sex trafficking - commonly Iraqi refugees with few options. We continue to hope/believe that no one would be brazen enough to grab a foreign tourist. That being said, we have some evidence that leads us to consider the option. The hotel clerk that last saw Nicole left the Cairo Hotel soon after Nicole disappeared and started a business, supposedly with money recently given to him by a woman he knew. The nature of their relationship, and the identity of the woman, is a mystery to us. One would think the police would follow this lead as much as possible, but they do not appear to be getting too far with it. Our hope that the police/officials investigating Nicole's disappearance are not also corrupt is being tested.

In Mexico, 60-year old Canadian woman Renee Wathelet was murdered in her condo a week or two ago. This is the latest in a series of murdered Canadians in Mexico. Travelling does have risks, and life in general can be dangerous once in a while, no matter where you are. We have the unusual situation of Syria, but it would be no less devastating if Nicole had made it back and then disappeared or been murdered in her home.

One of Nicole's friends has taken a great interest in her disappearance appears to be working tirelessly to help find her. He read through the entire blog (which is quite lengthy at this point) trying to pull together information. Due to his work we've realized that Nicole's journals indicate she "socialized in the foyer" on the 29th, but the Americans she talked to that we've subsequently found and spoken with, talked to her on the 30th (as confirmed in the hotel guest register). That leaves us with people who would have spoken with Nicole (the "socializing") but whom we either haven't found, or haven't mentioned it to us. We found most of the guests, so this is very surprising. But it could be nothing - it is easy to forget idle chatter with a random person at a hostel, especially months or years later.

Again, these are the details you'd expect the police to be on top of, but it seems like we have to remind them that her journals even exist (which we translated to Arabic) sometimes. And such a difference proximity makes - the missing Russian girl here in Toronto has dozens of officers and helicopters and dogs out searching random parks in hopes of finding evidence. Meanwhile we have no RCMP presence on the ground (or desire to change that) and the Syrian police didn't investigate until a month after she was reported missing.

We're still working out how best to approach the Canadian government for more direct assistance and diplomatic support in convincing the Syrians to push a bit harder. The chance of an election has diminished recently, which at least reduces the distractions for politicians should we need their attention.

September 15th (Evening):

My youngest brother got assaulted this past weekend at university in Nova Scotia. Mom received a call on Saturday that he was in surgery for a broken jaw. He's covered in bruises and eating through a straw for the next month. He's pretty sure him and his friends will be able to identify the person who punched him so he can press charges.

Needless to say, this is stressful for all of us (but mostly my brother as he starts his third year of university). Mom is already extra protective when we travel because of what happened to Nicole, and I'm guessing this won't help.

My mom was supposed to be working on a letter to Canadian politicians this past weekend but this was just too distracting. Mom just got back from the East Coast where she helped my brother move and now both her and I have an urge to fly there and make sure he's okay. Sounds like his friends are taking good care of him though.

September 10th (Evening):

I just finished a conference call with my mom and an advisor of ours. We've recently received some documents from Syria indicating that our time may be running out on finding Nicole (ie, the police will stop looking or, since they've kind of stopped already, they will never start again). This adds some urgency, but then again, we've felt urgency before only to discover nothing ever happens as scheduled.

Our problem is that we don't feel the Syrians are properly equipped to investigate Nicole's disappearance. But the Canadian government and RCMP have little to no interest in doing the investigation either. They're not only reluctant to interfere in a foreign powers' affairs, not to mention being burned recently with the Arar case, they also don't have the tools. There is no Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade "Delta Force" or SWAT team that's waiting by the phone for missing people situations.

Given the lack of tools, they're happy to let the Syrians do what the Syrians think is sufficient. But that's not enough, and that's where we have a problem. Unfortunately, it's not an easy (or fast) problem to solve, and it's probably too late - there's lots of press when a "cold case" is solved, but that's just a very few of all the old, unsolved crimes out there.

I begin to wonder if we should become crusaders to fix the problem so no one else has to go through it. Should we push for a "Duty to Protect" Canadians when they're outside the country? Right now, the government picks and chooses who to help. Some people get security teams and equipment rushed in, others get ignored. As we've seen recently in the news, sometimes the government works *against* Canadians!

In the end though, all we want is to know what happened to Nicole. And that possibility seems to be slipping further and further away.

September 9th (Evening):

Received an email today asking if the blog was still being updated - a good reminder that I'm behind on saying anything.

I'm going to use the excuse that today is my birthday so no updates. We're having a meeting tomorrow night regarding Nicole so I'll update either tomorrow night or Friday.

August 23rd (Afternoon):

Canadian newspapers have been filled with stories these past weeks on the "competence" of Foreign Affairs and Embassy staff in handling various missing/held people cases. The woman stranded in Kenya when she shouldn't have been has set off of a firestorm of anger and a lot of probing questions.

It is also one year to the day since Amanda Lindhout was kidnapped in Somalia. In that case they have sporadic contact with the kidnappers/Amanda (or so it is believed) but nothing has moved forward. It appears that the family is not speaking with the media, which is unusual.

The idea/complaint that most resonates with me is the generalist nature of the Canadian diplomatic staff. Our staff in Syria do not speak Arabic as a general rule, and this is common to all the embassies. People get moved from location to location every few years, and you could be in Bolivia one year and Vietnam the next, and the two aren't particularly similar. This makes it difficult to connect with local officials and truly understand the society - stumbling blocks we continue to face.

It's definitely true that officials in Ottawa are not particularly helpful. Elected officials take very little notice of us, and the unelected officials can't relate to the situation from Ottawa, don't take things seriously, misunderstand what's needed, and in general treat Nicole being missing as something they can forget about at the end of the day when they go home.

I'm not sure anyone is really to blame for this. It would be expensive to significantly improve Canada's ability to respond to situations in foreign countries and they just aren't that frequent. But as someone involved in just such a situation, I really wish the government was able to swoop in and save us, instead of needing to be dragged in and held so they won't run off.

August 9th (Afternoon):

Another two weeks where nothing has changed. If only we could just walk away from all of this! Unfortunately, it's just not an option.

Back on May 15th I mentioned how the search for Christina Calayca was coming to end because her mother is exhausted and running low on resources. Not surprisingly, the search hasn't really ended - a mother cannot just give up searching for her daughter. The Toronto Star had a small article this week detailing how they are attemping to raise funds for additional searching, with little success. We were fortunate that people enthusiastically supported our early fundraising efforts (though that money has all run out) and also fortunate that Nicole had saved up a lot of money (she travelled cheap for a reason) that we're now spending to try and find her. Having a bit of financial freedom gives us options that other families do not have. I can imagine how much extra frustrating it is to not be able to afford to do what is needed. Though that being said, the search for Madeleine McCann (similarly done in a foreign country to where the parents live) has had millions in funding, but still no success (though they have a person of interest this week that will hopefully not be another false lead).

My mom's computer and hard drive crashed a few weeks ago. We didn't have a proper back-up and lost all of our information and emails. The drive was sent to a specialist to recover and we've gotten some information back, but a lot of information is gone. In particular, her entire email address book, so if you've been in touch with mom and wondering why she's stopped talking, it may be because she can no longer reach you. We've also lost some Syrian and government email contacts, which will be tough to replace. In addition, records relating to who donated have been damaged, though I believe everyone who has donated has been contacted (if this isn't true, please let me know).

Much of the information is duplicated on my computer (or my old computer that I was using in 2007) and/or my stepfather's computer, but my mom preferred having it readily available.

Looking at Madeleine McCann's website (it's very professional), and listening to comments from readers, I'm tempted to switch the format of this blog. I never intended for the blog to turn out this way - it was supposed to be a single entry back on April 22nd, 2007. But then people wanted to know how things were going, so I updated it. And then I was suddenly in the press and needed to provide a link so people could stay up-to-date. Once the link to the specific entry was out there, I was reluctant to change the update locations in case people missed it and thought Nicole had been found. I also envisioned a continuing conversation in the comments (never really happened, the comments aren't really easy to follow along with).

Hundreds of updates later, the blog entry is still dated April 22nd, 2007 and updates are no longer daily. That means people have to actively check back instead of using more modern technology like RSS feeds to be notified whenever something new is added. I'd like to make it easier for people to keep up.

I'm not going to change the website or anything, but I may (or may not) start updating the main blog page (vienneau.livejournal.com) instead of this page. If it happens, I'll make it very clear at the top.

July 23rd (Evening):

I'm having a lot of trouble maintaining a schedule with updates. I try to find several hours so I can respond to emails and immerse myself in our search before posting, but that's not always readily available.

As reported earlier, the Minister of the Interior and Minister of Justice in Syria were both replaced in May. To our dismay, they appeared to be avoiding a meeting with the Canadian Ambassador to discuss Nicole's case. This likely relates more to Canada's sometimes troubled relationship with Syria more than anything to do with Nicole - one of many frustrating side effects of searching for someone in a different country.

In the past few weeks, the Ambassador met with both officials and was given the usual promises. This is better than nothing, but we would prefer to see more concrete action.

As I've likely mentioned before, Syrian officials are not very forthcoming with information and we are concerned that they telling us they've done something, but not actually doing it. When Mom left Syria in March, she left behind two dozen different requests and avenues of investigation. For example, "please interview the hotel staff and guests that can be found in Syria and provide us with copies of the interviews". The copies could be in Arabic or English - we'll get them translated.

Months later, we're told that everyone is interviewed and there was no new information. But no one gives us copies of the interviews. Or even a consistent guest list. And so we're left wondering if it was actually done, or do they just roll their eyes at all this work we're asking for and ignore it?

Or possibly they've done all the legwork, but it's not standard to record it. Or they aren't keen to release it for cultural or diplomatic reasons. We can't tell and are forced to assume the worst.

From watching movies, you expect that in a case like this all the relevant people would be interviewed soon after the crime/mishap was discovered. But in the movies, everything works out conveniently - there's plenty of evidence and witnesses or other convenient coincidences. Real life is not so neat and tidy.

Since Nicole disappeared in March 2007, the entire senior staff at the Canadian Embassy in Damascus has been replaced. This is standard practice - staff rotate in for 2-3 years and then move on. It helps keep them from "going native", though I suspect there are benefits to having people with years of experience in the culture and with the people. This past week my mother and I met with the newest staff member here in Toronto - he stopped in on his was to Syria so he could get a first-hand impression of the situation. We really appreciate the gesture and effort involved in making this happen - it demonstrates a level of concern that is good to see. It also helps to be able to discuss the case privately in Canada versus official discussion in Hama or Damascus.

We had another lead on Amine Benyahia but the email address wasn't working. We haven't been concentrating on guests or Amine as our focus has been on the Cairo Hotel where she was last seen for certain. It felt a bit strange writing the "Hello, are the person who was in Syria in March 2007?" email again - it's been a long time. The searcher identified the contact by searching in French, finding their university registration, and then searching on their topic matter and Syria to see if there were any links (fluid mechanics and the irrigation/water wheels in Hama were a potential connection). This kind of searching gives me fond memories of the volunteers who helped so much in 2007 and later with the search for guests (including some that have been extremely important in our search). Their creativity was inspiring.

July 6th (Morning):

Our strategy for finding Nicole has not been successfull so far so we are trying some new approaches. We've brought in some new advisors and we're hopeful that their experience will help us get the results we're looking for and we will find out what happened in Syria.

Over the past year or so, there has been a lot going on behind the scenes that we have been unable to reveal with risking the investigation or offending people we don't want to offend. We're still not quite ready to go public with those details, but we're pretty close. As soon as we feel that keeping them quiet hurts us more than helps, we'll make everything available.

Another "frustrating/amusing" anecdote relating to our search. We have a representative in Syria who provides us reports in Arabic via the Embassy. Amidst the chaos of mom's visits (which are often hectic with many meetings and lots of information being passed around), one of the reports didn't get passed along to us. It wasn't until a year later when it was mentioned during Mom's next visit to Syria that we even realized it existed.

To make sure there isn't anything else that might have slipped between the cracks, we asked for a list of all the various document so we could compare them to what we've read. But because we made the request in Canada, we were told it has to be a formal Freedom of Information request! Once again we are hassled by our own privacy laws. It's remotely possible we may not even get our own information because it relates to Nicole, and she hasn't given permission for her private information to be given out. Hopefully that is not the case - common sense clearly indicates that Nicole would want her family to have all the help they can get to find her.

In other news, here is a link to an interview with the Syrian First Lady. And if you search on "Syrian President" on the top right corner of the page, you can see interviews with the Syrian President. I thought this might be interesting for people who are not familiar with Syria. Their direct intervention to help in our search would be very much appreciated.

July 5th (Evening):

Removed temporarily.

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