July 31th (Evening):
Four months since Nicole disappeared. I was cleaning up some old emails and I found one I sent to Nicole about my recent visit with her in Egypt and how I hoped she had enjoyed it and that it was great fun for me. She never read it - it was sent April 7th. Similarly, there's an email I sent later in April saying that mom is worried so if Nicole has a chance, she really should contact someone as I'm sure she's just stuck in the mountains or something. It seems oddly innocent and naive to read it now.
Early this afternoon I suddenly received a rush of emails and blog comments - it appears that Al Arabiya, a popular news channel based in Dubai, published an online article about Nicole today. I know it's receiving a lot of attention because it already has over 100 comments, almost all of which are in Arabic. I've asked two of our volunteer translators to review them and pass along any that are helpful.
Speaking of translators, there has been a great response these last few days from arabic-speaking volunteer translators all over the world. This is good as I can spread around the work without feeling guilty for putting it all on one person.
One problem that has come up is with emails written to the family in Arabic. Unfortunately, Hotmail does not translate Arabic characters properly, which is very frustrating, though internet translation sites tend to have trouble with Arabic anyway. Thus Arabic emails are unreadable and I have to respond in English asking for a copy in Microsoft Word or any other format that will keep the font. Problems I never knew existed and never used to have to worry about.
I do have a question for the Syria experts out there. Along the road we believe Nicole travelled from Hama to al-Hamrah, there is at least one military/radar base. For someone not used to such things, it's quite a sight to see all the rotating dishes of various shapes and sizes. Gary and I met and chatted with one of the soldiers on the minibus when we re-enacted Nicole's final trip.
What are the odds that the local military base is involved? Will they be investigated as closely as civilians, or are they kind of separate and treated differently? I believe I've asked this before, but maybe some of the new readers might have some suggestions. There are various movies and real life stories where soldiers from nearby bases commit criminal acts and there's always an issue of catching and prosecuting them. Is it possible Nicole stumbled across some soldiers who are now being sheltered by the military?
And if so, how do we find out?
July 30th (Evening):
Mom's "plea" to Nicole was apparently shown last week on Syrian television and will be repeated on Tuesday (tomorrow). The Embassy has apparently taped it for us to view. Again, if you're in Syria and catch it (around 6:30?), please let me know what you think.
A sharp-eyed reader pointed out an article about a murdered dark-haired girl found at the side of the road between Damascus and Homs. I presume if it was a foreigner that this would have been mentioned. And one hopes that when they say they're checking the missing person lists that it would include Nicole. I've sent an email to the Syrian police just to be sure though they tend not to respond directly.
If someone could translate the article and post it in the blog, that would be greatly appreciated. Google translator gives me the gist, but I'd prefer the full translation on this one. Thank you to everyone - a translation has been posted in the comments.
We've translated the earlier days of the Riad Hotel guest list. The link has been permanently added to the ones a few entries below. This list has all the guests that arrived earlier in the week and stayed until the 29th or later. The original list only included guests that arrived on the 28th. There is some overlap which is beneficial in that it gives us another perspective on how to translate the names. As always, if you can find anyone on the list, please have them contact us.
I've sent out all the Cairo Hotel guest list images, but I haven't received them all back. They're a lot more difficult to use because they don't have departure dates. I'm a bit hesitant to post a list of a hundred people, only 20 or 30 of which are actually of interest.
One of our longest ongoing quests is the attempt to find the Americans that stayed at the Cairo Hotel when Nicole was there, and whom talked to Nicole (according to both her journal and the manager). Unfortunately, despite the United States being right beside Canada and so on, they've been very difficult to work with. They've indicated that the American guests that they spoke to have no additional information, but for privacy reasons will not let us contact them directly. The frustrating part is that they haven't told us which Americans they've contacted, and which ones they haven't.
Also frustrating is the Syrian police. They have a much vaunted secret police, they in theory are tracking the movements of all the foreigners, especially Americans, and yet there is no word on whether they can find the Americans who are actually living in Syria. One of them is married to a Russian - I can't imagine that that is too common a sight in Damascus!
July 29th (Afternoon):
Things are a bit more upbeat today with the help of a very enthusiastic translator who has already finished up 7 images of guest lists, and is keen to do more. It's a small task done, but at least it's one less! One thing we have learned from the translations is that our earlier lists excluded guests from Asia and the Middle East. To be fair, they are less likely to have been the "Americans that were chatting with her" as described by the Cairo Hotel manager, but I had forgotten that our original translated lists are not complete.
I believe we may have also found the Algerian that was at the castle the same day Nicole disappeared. Not 100% certain yet, but I can't imagine there are that many young Algerians with the exact same name living in Switzerland. On the other hand, I recently found someone with my exact name and living here in Toronto - I can only imagine what he feels like to see his name in the news these past few months.
There's a new online article on our search for Nicole from the folks at Syria News. They were the earliest Syrian news outlet to assist us with getting the word out, and have been good about continuing to post updates every few weeks.
Gary is no doubt flying home to Vancouver as I write this. I'm sure it will be quite a shock to return to a relatively "normal" existence and job after two months of living in a hotel, searching the roads every day.
July 28th (Evening):
Today has been a rough day. I wasn't going to post anything because I didn't want to depress everyone, but I know this is primary source of information for friends and family so I hate skipping updates. It's like never-ending homework - this task which at first seemed like a purpose-filled mission, now hits me every day as soon as I wake up. A never-ending slog through ever thicker mud. At this point, I'm just pulling myself forward with my hands, hoping to reach an end somewhere.
When this started and we had some early successes, I knew we would find her if we continued to work ourselves raw, gathered enough volunteers and broke all the rules on what you're "supposed" to do. Now that firm resolve is starting to fail. No problem should be unsolvable, and I haven't given up yet, but the notion is starting to grow, and I don't like the looks of it and what it will do to our relatively small family.
Early on I would do Google searches to see our progress in getting the word out. Each additional link would be a cause for excitement as yet another blog or website carried our story. Now it's like wandering through an empty graveyard - all the links are months old, and the comments offering hope seem to echo in the empty rooms.
As I said, I'm in a grim mood. And there is no specific cause for it - I received several fantastic offers of assistance on translating and they are all very much appreciated. I will likely be posting new hotel lists soon.
Someone suggested that there is a lot of open construction in Syria - they don't quite follow Canadian safety guidelines on their job sites. An ugly fear is that even if her remains are found in some building or forest years from now, no one will know to check if it's her and contact us. The Syrian police seem frustratingly (especially for the RCMP) uninterested in dental or DNA records.
What I really need is a new angle, a new idea that comes at this from a totally different direction. There must be an answer, and there almost definitely is a way to find it. School and work just haven't prepared me for problems with no solution. And the alternative is to think that people get away with such things without punishment, and that offends my sense of justice. In the movies, don't the good guys always win in the end?
July 27th (Evening):
Normally I take Friday "off" from blogging to give myself a break, but with two missed days earlier I thought I'd post something quickly before a variety of friends arrive for an evening visit.
Our Foreign Affairs correspondent in Ottawa has kind of disappeared these past few weeks - no responses to emails or phone calls. We presume it's a vacation (illness?) situation with no updates to voice mail or email, but it's still a bit odd. Luckily we've made sufficient contacts via the embassy in Damascus that we're still in touch if we need to be (especially Gary in Syria), but one hopes that we're not missing anything. If there is one thing I've learned from this it's that unlike in movies where everyone drops everything to help solve the case, in real life everyone has personal lives and other responsibilities, so you constantly have to push for attention and resources from those you would have expected would be rushing to help. I preferred my naive, yet comfortable, former viewpoint.
There are also a lot fewer convenient clues lying around in real life. It just isn't as neat and tidy as one is led to believe on television. I would give a lot (1,000,000 Syrian pounds for example) for a good trail of clues at this point!
Much to my mother's dismay, Gary purchased a motorbike a little while ago! This has helped him cover hundreds of kilometres of road in his search and really improved his productivity. Given that he's returning in the next 72 hours, every bit helps. He doesn't drive the bike in Hama itself, but keeps it at a contact's house outside of town for traversing the countryside. I look forward to hearing what he's found once he's returned - he's been so busy during his last week that he hasn't had a chance to update us fully.
I'm still looking for Arabic to English translators if you have some time. Again, if you've already offered, please offer again as I'd rather volunteers keep having to offer instead of assuming they're still available and putting them in a position where they have to say "no".
One of the reasons we're relatively certain that a criminal act was involved is the lack of any remains or gear. If she was hit by a car or otherwise incapacitated by the road, someone would have found her by now. What I just remembered last night is that there were two floods in April, one just a week after Nicole went missing. I'm wondering whether the floodwaters could have moved the evidence somewhere. I emailed Gary to ask about dry river and lakebeds and see if he can figure out where the water dissipates. Not being from a flood-prone area, I have no idea what really happens when floodwaters recede and whether detritus gathers in certain spots. Does anyone familiar with the area and flooding in general have any suggestions or ideas?
July 26th (Evening):
A quick update to yesterday's quest to find:
Ameen Benyahia, born 1984, father's name is Abbas, mother's name is Monica.
The first name may also be spelt "Amine". I'm not sure if Gary read someone else's interpretation or the actual guest information. Given the inclusion of the father and mother's name, I suspect it was a registration filled out by the guest and so hopefully it's correct.
One of the larger newspapers in Syria, "Tishreen", has published a lengthy article on our search. Google translator does a reasonable job of telling me what it says - hopefully it will encourage someone to come forward with new information.
I have to admit, while there always has to be a first time, I do find it difficult to believe that the Syrian people were involved because it just doesn't seem in their nature. It continues to lead me towards thinking it was an accident of some sort, but I can't see how that is possible. I even double-checked the earthquake history in the region earlier this week on the off chance that the ground literally opened up and swallowed her. No significant earthquakes were reported.
I know I have asked before, but I don't organize my volunteer emails very well and I hate to keep bothering the same people over and over. Gary has sent me twenty-two .jpg images of various pages of the Riad and Cairo hotel guest lists leading up to March 28th (where our lists begin). I am hoping to find Arabic to English translators who can help. Some of the pages are quite large and/or very blurry. It's far too much to give to one person and involves a lot of translating of names, which tends to give different results depending on who is doing the translating.
If you can read Arabic and have some time over the next few days, please let me know via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will send you an image or two. Any help is much appreciated.
July 25th (Evening):
No update yesterday - LiveJournal was down so the blog was inaccessible.
My mom just sent me the latest list of donors to our search (current as of last week). While it is perhaps not manly to admit to tears, there is certainly moisture welling in my ducts when I read and re-read the generosity of friends, relatives and absolutely strangers. I've received notes from distant relatives I've never met, friends I haven't seen in over twenty years, and from people who I just wouldn't have expected it from. It shows a wonderful side to people that you don't always get to see, and once again, I promise to follow up with everyone properly once this is over.
Another wonderful side of things is the assistance of volunteers. The people who are translating documents and our website, the people who have helped me with contacts, and of course the people who are finding hotel guests. So much work has been done that couldn't have been accomplished without them.
Gary has found some new information - the "Swiss" tourist who visited Qasr Ibn Wardan is actually Algerian (though perhaps with Swiss ties) and we have his records:
Ameen Benyahia, born 1984, father's name is Abbas, mother's name is Monica.
If you can help us find him so we can ask if he saw Nicole that day, or along the way, or has any other recollections that might assist, it would be greatly appreciated.
As you might have noticed, updates have been sparse even considering the website being down. This reflects the lack of new information coming in, which is in turn, I believe, a reflection on the lack of work I've been able to dedicate as I've slowly burned out. If only I could give up sleep!
July 23rd (Evening):
With the help of a volunteering co-worker to translate, I managed a conference call chat with one of the two Czechs that spent time with Nicole in Palmyra. Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, Nicole was not forthcoming with her exact plans for March 31st. From what he says, she didn't mention any plans for day trips though she was obviously planning at least to visit Apamea. They also weren't the source of the map - someone else had the guidebook that she copied.
And they left Palmyra after two days, so we still have two "missing" days in Palmyra that we're pretty certain were also at the Citadel Hotel.
Gary is working incredibly hard in Syria. Here I am complaining about the heat and the stress and the weariness, and I'm comfortably sitting in my own house putting in a few hours a day. Meanwhile Gary has been separated from his life for over two months in scorching heat with only a mix of frantic effort and boredom to keep him company (there's not much to do after dark in Hama). Nicole is very fortunate to have found Gary. I can only hope that he now finds her.
The pace of progress in the search and incoming emails has slowed considerably. Much like when I was in Syria in May, you leave the country feeling that everything will be resolved and dozens of people are working at finding Nicole back in Hama. Then after a week or two back in Canada, you notice that all the outstanding requests are still outstanding. Making things happen in Syria (and from what I can tell, much of the Arabic and African world) is all about being there in person. Yet another reason why it is so important and helpful to have Gary over there.
July 21st (Morning):
As usual, Friday did not reveal a whole bunch of new information. I haven't heard from Gary since Thursday, so I suspect he's either extremely busy, or the Internet is down in Hama again. I believe he's returning home in the next week or two so understandably he wants to get as much done as possible while he's still in Syria.
Here's another article link, this time from the Arabic News Broadcast.
A reader suggested that we really try and find a way to talk directly to the women in Syria. This has been suggested several times before - the women have informal networks and know everything that is going on, but they won't talk to foreign men, or non-family men, or men who are accompanied by police, etc. The key is to get a female translator, and probably a female questioner. The Syrian police assure us that they have interviewed the women, but much like "interviewing the hotel staff" seemed to actually mean "interview the manager and he tells us what they said", I worry that the women may not have had a chance to tell us all they know.
But with mom back here in Canada, I'm not sure how to proceed. Gary has found a wonderful female translator, but I'm not sure if it's appropriate for them to head into the fields and talk to the women workers alongside the road to al-Hamrah or Ibn Wardan.
For the first time last night I actually distracted myself sufficiently to not think about Nicole and the search for a couple of hours. It was so strange to come out of the evening feeling relaxed and happy. It was a break I definitely needed, and I suspect the rest of the family do too.
July 20th (Morning):
Thing in my regular life have been very busy this week, hence the second missed update. I'm a bit concerned about my levels of stress and distraction - the past few weeks have seen a lot of larger than usual errors made in my real-life job and it troubles me. As usual, I'm falling ever behind on responding to emails.
Mom's Syrian television Appeal was pre-empted this week for extended coverage of the president's inaugural address. It is now scheduled for Tuesday, July 24th sometime between 6:15 and 6:35. Hopefully this will reach some new people and find us a lead.
Gary has sent me photographs of the Cairo Hotel guest list for days prior to where we've already been looking. They're all in Arabic and a couple are very blurry, but when I get a moment I may send a few out to various volunteers who have offered to translate Arabic for us.
It's at times like this, when I can make use of an entire planet worth of resources and information, that I can only wonder at what this search would have been like twenty or fifty years ago. It would have taken months to even figure out where she disappeared from, and likely have involved a trip to Syria and visiting all the hotels we could find. Translators would have to be hired, books scoured for information on locations to visit, and we would have no way at all of finding the various people that Nicole spoke with. At this point, I'm a big fan of technology!
I have to head off to work - next post should be tomorrow.
July 18th (Evening):
We have contacted the Czechs!
It's actually a bit of an interesting story as it involved a friend of a friend who lives in the Czech Republic driving to Brno and knocking on their door! They just had to know if they had found the people we were looking for. That kind of drive and initiative is very much appreciated - the people finding guests have been absolutely amazing. Our guest finding specialist Kim is so good at tracking people down that she's actually found guests that aren't on the guest list! We think it's because they registered before our guest lists start, so Gary is going to send me a more comprehensive list.
Later tonight we'll be updating the Cairo Hotel guest lists with some alternate translations. Those of you trying to find guests may want to take a peek and see if the new names bring up some possibilities. As I said yesterday, if anyone who reads Arabic wants to offer their own translations, just email me and I'll send you the images of the guest book in the original Arabic.
Lots and lots of emails today, keeping me very busy. I've had a headache since Monday, but I can't tell if it's exhaustion or just general stress. Unfortunately, I just can't seem to sleep as much as I need to, but at least I'm not suffering in the heat of Syria like Gary is - things have cooled down considerably here in Toronto
July 17th (Evening):
After having lots to say yesterday, today I find myself with little new news, despite spending a couple of hours corresponding and following up on emails.
Gary has been extremely busy in Syria. After mom met with the various levels of government there was a rush to provide assistance and Gary is doing all he can to make use of it. He has been given a group of volunteers to help with the search, as well as a local expert (I'm still waiting for more details on that). He's confirmed that the message is going out via the mosques which is something we've wanted for a really long time.
Gary also visited Shmemnis or Qal'at Shmemis (every location has multiple translations). A couple of leads pointed us in this direction but he was able to confirm with the caretaker there that she never visited.
An interview with mom was supposed to air on television today in Syria - if you're in Syria and happened to see it, please email me with your thoughts and impressions.
One of the photos that came back with my mother is Gary standing beside a giant hole where an olive tree will be planted. The grim thought is that somewhere there may be a hole with no tree in it. As always, the nagging concern is that Nicole will be missing forever. Fortunately, mom's trip to Syria was very successful in raising awareness and encouraging additional resources. Despite how it may sound, I am hopeful once again.
July 16th (Evening):
I took a day off yesterday and tried to relax in hopes of clearing my mind. It wasn't 100% effective, but I think it will give me the energy to really attack the backlog of emails this week. There is a lot to say today, and quite a few different new things to follow up on, especially if you can read Arabic.
The fundraiser last Thursday in Vancouver was very popular with $1,500 raised to help continue the search for Nicole. It is really touching to see friends arrange this kind of event without any prompting and to have so many people attend and make it a success. A big thank you to Heather Kisbee who made it all happen, the Westside Senior Soccer Society and Darby D Dawes!
One of the interesting Syria anecdotes from my step-father was the reaction from the mainstream press reporters when they did interviews. At first, the reporters were certain my mom was making it all up! They are so confident that this could never happen in Syria, that they couldn't believe Nicole was actually missing for this long. As one of the Syrian newspaper articles mentioned a few days ago says, it has been decades since anything like this has ever happened - most people have no memory of it ever occurring before.
Speaking of Syrian press, there is another Syria News article about Nicole. It's in Arabic only, but Google translator tells me that it's mostly a collection of news from other recent articles.
The Canadian Embassy has sent me scanned images of the Cairo Hotel guest list. If you can read Arabic and wish to attempt your own translation, please email me directly (email@example.com) and I will send them to you. They are fairly large (four pages of 800K each) so I won't be posting them to the blog.
I also have the photos of the Citadel Hotel guest list that Gary took and the names are in English though the handwriting is the not the best. For the most part, we're not too concerned with finding the guests other than the two Czechs (who we've tracked down, but are still searching for phone number and email addresses). But that being said, there are two Citadel Hotel guests (Belgian) that were also at the Cairo Hotel, and they arrived right before Nicole in Palmyra (and on April 1st in Hama), so maybe they met and chatted. I am going to post the guest list photos below after I finish the update so if you're one of the many people helping to search, please take a look at the first photo for alternate interpretations of these names:
Carine Derick/De Rijck
The photos have their names just above Nicole's (entered as Jacqueline Vienneau) and includes passport numbers and other information, unfortunately in Arabic, though I'm not sure how helpful passport numbers are for searching Google and Facebook.
Speaking of finding guests, volunteer Kim has found two more! It's impressive to see that kind of dedication to helping us as I expect the actual searching through the Internet isn't all that entertaining after the first few hours of feeling like a detective.
In other volunteer news, I've had two people email in the past 24 hours indicating that they are heading to Syria on other business, but if I need anything they are willing to help out. It's really marvellous to experience this kind of generosity, I just wish the circumstances were better.
We've done a variety of updates to the official website, mostly on the Arabic side. The Home and Rewards page now have translations available. We've also updated the posters in English and French (and Arabic).
And one final update - Gary took a picture the log book at Qasr Ibn Wardan and mom brought it back with her. It's on the Downloads page.
If you can read Arabic, can you please translate the name of the Swiss traveller who visited the castle on March 31st? We'd like to find him and see if he noticed anything.
Heck, if you can read Arabic, translate the entire photo and we'll find everyone who visited that week! Photo translated and confirmed with a second translation - thank you very much!
July 14th (Morning):
I'm going to be out for most of today, so a quick morning post.
We've determined the name of one of the Czechs that spent time with Nicole - Andrej Prachar of Brno-Zidenice (the "Z" is a Czech character that doesn't translate well). We're working on getting an email address or mobile phone number. It continues to amaze me how we're able to find these people around the world using just volunteers.
In a similar vein, volunteer Kim has found yet another two guests - I suspect she should start a Private Investigator firm! They arrived at the Riad after Nicole disappeared, so it was not surprising that they didn't notice anything strange.
The Cairo Hotel guests continue to elude us. We're working on getting back the Arabic copies of the guest list so people can try alternate translations.
Mom comes home tonight so we'll likely meet and update one another tomorrow.
July 13th (Evening):
Things are very hectic with Mom over in Syria - lots of new information, important people being met, and articles being written. It gives one hope that we'll finally begin to make some progress beyond "she left the Cairo Hotel".
My mother and step-father met with the Grand Mufti for Syria earlier this week. This was a very successfull meeting and he promised to inform the various religious leaders in Syria, starting with Hama and surrounding areas. I'm very excited by this contact and wish we had tried to make it happen earlier.
A reader not only found the Al-Watan article I asked about yesterday, but also translated it for us.
A second Arabic article was published by Dar al Hayat, indicating that we are definitely getting the word out.
The CBC here in Canada published a more in-depth article that includes an interview with my mom in Syria, and there's rumours of a BBC World TV spot (often viewed in hotels) that was perhaps in collaboration with the CBC, but we haven't yet found an online presence and didn't see the piece.
I have a request for those of you who are familiar with the ruins of Syria. Various people have been using the Flickr photo search engine to try and find references to Hama or the Cairo Hotel. I've found a picture of a location I'd like to identify. Does anyone recognize this photo? It's exactly the sort of thing Nicole would have climbed for a great picture.
And finally, my little brother's bike was recovered! I don't know if it was just "borrowed" by someone who happened to be carrying chain cutters, or whether they read the blog and felt guilty, but when my brother went back to get the broken chain as evidence, he found his bike lying against the others. Very strange - perhaps it signifies a turn in our fortune?
July 12th (Evening):
The Fundraiser for Nicole starts in just a few hours in Vancouver (see yesterday's entry) - everybody is welcome!
We found the Slovenian! Or more accurately, he found us. Someone posted a note on a Slovenian travel forum and he happened to notice it. This shows us that everyone posting notes on all the blogs and forums around the world is really working.
While he didn't have any new information that might lead us to Nicole, he did tell us that the two Czechs were from Brno in Moravia, a Czech republic. The male Czech "works in a shop, selling some kind of travelling maps". So for those of you helping to find the Czechs, maybe these clues will help. As a reminder about those two Czechs:
Andrei Pratchar (1970/12/2) could be Ondřej Prachař
Janac Aminkova (1979/10/9) could be Jana Kamínková
An alert reader directed me to an article about Nicole published today in a Quebec newspaper. It doesn't mention the website or email address unfortunately, and seems to quote incorrect information from a diplomat, but any publicity is good publicity!
In that vein, there is also supposed to be an article on http://www.alwatan.sy/ that was published on July 11th. If any of our Arabic readers could point me to the exact link, it would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to provide a rough translation as well. I believe it's a daily newspaper, but I'm getting third-hand information.
LOOKING FOR MORE ARABIC TRANSLATORS! My mother has typed out Nicole's last few journal entries and we were hoping to find someone to translate all or parts of it tomorrow (Friday) so it's more accessible to the police and Syrians in general. I have the volunteers that we leaned on a lot about a month ago, but I'm also looking for new ones. If you feel you have a good grasp of English and Arabic and have access to a keyboard that can handle Arabic script (tougher to find than we originally thought), let me know and I may send you a few pages tomorrow during the day. We're hoping to have it before my mom leaves Syria on Saturday so it can be passed along in person, but if not, then a few days later will be our target.
And finally, to clarify, the new email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) is also being used because it's a bit easier to remember for non-English folks, and a lot easier to spell than "email@example.com".
July 11th (Evening):
This Thursday at 7pm there will be a Fundraiser in Vancouver to help cover some of the costs of the search for Nicole. It is hosted by Nicole's old soccer team, the "Westside Storm":
Start Time: Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 7:00pm
Location: Darby D Dawes Rooftop Patio
Street: 2001 MacDonald Street
City/Town: Vancouver, BC
As Miranda the organizer says:
"A $10 donation to the search fund gets you onto Darby's rooftop patio for your first beer, appetizers and some midsummer mingling. What's happening at the U20 world cup? Which new teams are joining Westside for the fall? Who's CATing with who? Who's coaching who? If you get yourself really warmed up its Darby's open mic night downstairs later ;-)"
If you're in the area, please feel free to attend and meet some of Nicole's friends and teammates!
A reader has found a link to the National Post article on Nicole from July 9th. It's not upbeat, but unfortunately that's how I was feeling late last week and over the weekend.
Those of you keeping up with the official website may have noticed a second email for tips: firstname.lastname@example.org. It's felt that some people may feel the police are reviewing email@example.com so the new hotmail account is more anonymous. I can assure everyone, the "tips" emails are only read by me here in Canada, and they all get forwarded to my firstname.lastname@example.org account. But feel free to use the new account - that one is read by my step-father and mother.
A new idea, based on comments from the various hotel guests we've found. Did I mention that Kim has found yet another guest today? Truly amazing.
The weekend Nicole disappeared was not only Easter, but also leading up to an election (a different election than the one happening in late May). I haven't had time to think this through, but are there any ramnifications of having an election at the same time? More strangers in town? People a bit rowdier? Roads closed or other interruptions to a road trip to al-Hamrah? If anyone has some thoughts or experiences to share on this, please email or post them in the comments.
July 10th (Evening):
Lots of news from Syria today, though I still need time to digest some of the details and work out what we can and can't share. Unfortunately, still no Nicole.
Mom and Gary have met with many officials in Hama and Damascus in the past few days and it seems to be paying off. The government has increased their efforts to find Nicole and have offered us more assistance, some of which seems minor but is actually quite important. For example, the municipal workers in Hama will be instructed to not remove the "Nicole is Missing" posters from the walls of the city, something that is normally their responsibility. Permissions have (hopefully) been granted for some increased advertising as well.
The police have tracked down some of Nicole's movements and companions earlier on in her Syria trip. No leads from that yet, but it demonstrates that they can find out information when they need to. I am hoping that we can encourage the police (and American and Canadian governments) to help track down the Americans staying at the Cairo who were residing in Syria at the time. All we need is one person who remembers something of Nicole's plans and we've got a direction to head in.
As promised, an article on Nicole was published in the National Post on Monday. Because I'm taking care of my mother's house, I didn't see it until today. Unfortunately I can't find an online link.
Mom has done a couple of interviews for Syrian television as well. This is very significant and something we've been striving for since May. International media will help bring in resources and find international travellers, but Syrian television should bring in tips. In addition to television, there are talks with some local papers in Syria for additional coverage, and this time it will be in the news section, not something we pay for.
Some frustrating local news - my brother's bike got stolen last night while he was watching a movie. This is reminiscent of my mother's second honeymoon twenty years ago when I broke my arm and Nicole got hit by a car in the same week. Whenever mom leaves town with my step-father, there is apparently a dramatic increase in injury and crime back home. To be fair, when they were both in town, my mother was lightly rear-ended by a transport truck a week or two ago, but as she said at the time, "compared to everything else that's going on, this is nothing".
And an amusing story from Syria. As he walked the highway looking for Nicole, Gary needed a stick to poke into holes or investigate things (there is occasionally garbage or other refuse). But where do you find a long stick in Hama, Syria? Ever resourceful, Gary went to a local hardware store and bought a broomstick sans broom. The kicker? It's apparently bright pink!
July 9th (Evening):
I just finished two solid hours of responding to emails and I am now caught up to...June 28th. Unfortunately, the backlog stretches into the first week of June, so there are still people waiting.
I did want to reassure everyone that I read all emails and blog comments within hours of them being posted/sent. It's only responding that can take some time.
Speaking of time, a volunteer has now tracked down over half a dozen different guests. It's absolutely amazing to see what is being accomplished - the guest lists have been updated to reflect newly found people. Every blank line is someone we've found and removed (to maintain their privacy as much as possible).
One positive side effect of responding to emails is a sense of accomplishment - I'm a bit more upbeat than I have been these past few days. And my girlfriend was just promoted, so not all news is bad in the Vienneau household.
No call from mom today, but I did receive a quick email. They're back in Damascus and meeting with the Interior Minister today or tomorrow. It will really help that they've been there as that will add two more people with "on the ground" experience to bounce ideas off of.
An idea that came to me today (email-inspired) was that Nicole may have headed somewhere else in town to take pictures before heading off to the beehive houses. I had thought of this while in Hama, but didn't really know how to follow up other than to wander to other sites such as the waterwheels (norias) and the citadel (a big hill with a park on top). I still don't know how to follow up on it (other than making sure all of Hama is aware of her disappearance) but at least it offers an alternate scenario that would explain why no one saw her between the hotel and the bus, and why she never made it to the bus. Unfortunately, a plausible scenario that expands our search radius is not particularly helpful.
July 8th (Evening):
Anther slow, hot day - prepare yourself for a frustrated and weary update. Very little new information coming in and I'm too tired to do much of anything. The pressure of knowing I need to dedicate a bunch of hours to attack the backlog of emails wars with the pressure of knowing that I'll do a poor job of it while exhausted. If only I could sleep eight straight hours!
It really bothers me every time I open my in-box and see 100+ emails waiting. I wanted to mention to people that have contacted me that I sometimes take a month to respond. This is because your idea or suggestion is something I want to mull over for a while or it takes a while to follow up on. At other times, people have offered to help but I read it while at the office and put it aside until I get home, only to get home and get distracted by easier emails (requiring just a few lines). If it's a busy week, a couple of days can pass and suddenly an email I really want to answer has sunk to the second page of my in-box and slips from my mind. So far, people have been really good about picking up a conversation that may have started in early June, I really appreciate that.
I spoke briefly with mom on the phone a few hours ago. She didn't seem to have any urgent new news. It's tough to keep spirited day after day when we never seen to move further than "Nicole walked out of the hotel", but I think I'm more down over here in Canada than she is in Syria.
On the plus side, I did receive some volunteer offers after yesterday's post and I spent a bit of time sending notes. More emails will follow as I stumble across items here and there that need attention.
99 days. I really never thought it would go this far.
July 7th (Noon):
In a fantastic display of initiative, one reader (Kim) managed to find four guests at the Cairo Hotel in a single day! Unfortunately, none of the guests we have contacted remember seeing or chatting with Nicole, but they have all been great in cooperating and offering to help. We only have 13 guests left at the Cairo that arrived on or before the 30th and were most likely to have met with her - based on her journals and comments by the hotel manager, we know she chatted with guests on the 29th, we just need to find them.
Another reader (Maria) has put forth an absolutely amazing effort in trying to track down the Finnish guest. The name translation is not good, but that hasn't stopped her from calling people with similar sounding names and asking after family members and so on. This is exactly what we need and works especially well in smaller countries with their own language. Unfortunately, most of our remain target guests are American, which is neither small or linguistically unique.
I was woken up at 7am this morning by a call from Syria. Mom and Gary were looking for some contact details for people in Sa'an. They are in the process of re-creating Nicole's trip to the beehive houses and the surrounding area. It's been fourteen weeks exactly since she disappeared.
I have maybe a dozen leads that I haven't found time to follow up on, and some of them have been lying around my in-box for quite a while. These are generally groups in Syria, or people that might be guests, that need to be emailed or called.
A lot of people have offered to help over the past few months, but I've been reluctant to randomly ask strangers to make calls and email for me - I have a problem with delegating it appears. I also worry that random emails from strangers may be ignored more easily than one directly from the family. But at this point, an ignored email is better than no email at all.
Thus, if you would like to help and are a good communicator in either English or Arabic, please contact me, even if you've contacted me in the past. I may not be able to use everyone, but what I will try and do is respond with a website or organization that I'm hoping you can contact, asking if they can help (or are the hotel guest list in question). It may only take you 10-15 minutes, but that's 10-15 minutes that I save on my end, so it's very valuable to me.
July 5th (Evening):
Almost didn't get a post in before bedtime. It appears that my mother's computer is only slightly faster than the ones in Syria that drove me crazy, so that makes everything just that little bit more frustrating.
Mom called from Syria today - they've arrived and are making plans. They'll be in Hama tomorrow through Sunday, meeting with people and following Nicole's route. Our temporary licence for the website updating software has expired and we're awaiting renewal, thus the website isn't getting updated. It's the stuff you don't expect that slows you down.
We've already found two guests from the Citadel Hotel - some readers are becoming quite proficient at this! No new information however - it was always a long shot.
I did an interview with the National Post today, so there should be an article either on Saturday or Monday. I have yet to hear back from some Middle East CNN, Reuters and BBC contacts. The interview questions had me thinking about what next after Mom comes home. If we haven't found Nicole by then, I think we're pretty much out of ideas. Until that point it was inconceivable to think that eventually, one day, we'll just give up looking. Depressing.
July 4th (Evening):
Please let me know if the format for the hotel lists works for everyone. We're using "Rich Text Format" to make it easier to edit and maintain the readability, but I'm not sure if it works for everyone.
A friend pointed that there actually is someone who is on both the Citadel and Cairo Hotel lists - Carine Derick and Carine De Rijck are the same person. Unfortunately she arrived at the Cairo on the 1st or else there's a better chance of her speaking with my sister at least once. I'm still keen to find her. If anyone else notices possible duplicates, let me know.
One of the side effects of this situation is that I've re-connected with people I haven't seen or spoken to in 10, 15 or 20 years. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to properly follow up with them like I'd like to, but for everyone who knew me in high school and earlier, once this is all over (hopefully sooner rather than later), I would love to see you! I'm especially appreciate of friends from the past who have not only appeared out of nowhere, but generously donated to the trust. As I keep saying to the media, people are absolutely incredible in how they're helping.
A new theory of sorts has bubbled up - poisonous snakes. Early on I checked for large predators in Syria and there aren't any, but I didn't think to investigate poisonous reptiles. It appears that there are a variety of poisonous snakes that like to inhabit farmland, the standard terrain along the roads Nicole may have been walking. Perhaps she was bitten and panicked and ran towards a tent or house, only to collapse out of sight of the road? It still seems like herders and locals would have found signs - I don't believe most vipers can swallow humans whole.
Mom is landing in Syria as I type this (presuming no delays). Hopefully her visit will be able to produce some positive results.
July 3rd (Evening):
Gary has retrieved the hotel list for the "Citadel" Hotel in Palmyra/Tadmoor where Nicole stayed. The list is further down the page with the Cairo and Riad lists. We're hoping to cross-reference the Citadel guests with the other two lists, but it doesn't appear to have any matches (please check for yourself, of course).
We currently don't know where Nicole was staying in Palmyra on the 27th and 28th, but we're almost positive it was also at the Citadel Hotel. We may be able to figure it out for certain by chatting with someone who met up with her, but it's a longshot. We think the missing two days are likely bad records instead of a clue to her disappearance, but we need to follow up on everything.
Have any Arabic speakers verified the new translated pages? The "Can You Help?" page seems have a lot of English characters, so we're pretty sure we've loaded it up incorrectly. The FAQ looks okay though.
Mom heads to Syria tonight (arriving Thursday) and I move into her place to watch over things - my eating habits will no doubt suffer for my girlfriend's absence. It will also make the search a bit more difficult with all my resources on my home computer, but luckily we live relatively close to one another. With my step-father gone, the website won't be updated as frequently - hopefully they'll find her soon so that won't be a problem!
July 2nd (Morning):
We now have Arabic translations of some pages on the official site. The FAQ and the Can You Help? pages have been translated and posted. Now more people can get information if they're interested. Arabic speakers should feel free to proofread the translations. As I believe I mentioned earlier, Thair Hassan from Syria has been of great assistance with the website translation.
The reward offer has been extended to July 15th. We're not getting the results we had hoped for, but it costs us very little to keep it open.
A quick question - does anyone have a Friendster account? We want to follow up on a potential hotel guest that was found on Friendster but no one in the family has an account. If you have an account and are willing to email a random person and ask if they've ever been to Syria, let us know. We've found someone!
A few days ago I mentioned the two Czechs we'd love to find. I still have to verify with Gary (he's accessed the Internet earlier today, which is good) but it could be another case of translation issues. It's been suggested that the names might be incorrectly translated. So, for example,
Andrei Pratchar (1970/12/2) could be Ondřej Prachař
Janac Aminkova (1979/10/9) could be Jana Kamínková
I'll check with Gary for more clarity.
July 1st (Morning):
There's been a flurry of guest findings this week but unfortunately none of them have turned into leads. I even heard from a Japanese women I emailed last month who lived with the Bedouin for quite a while and she'll ask her Bedouin friends. I was hoping to update the guest list last night but my "non-Nicole life" got in the way. With out-of-town guests in to visit, it can be difficult to disappear for an our or two to do work.
Our plan is to post the Arabic versions of key web pages as soon as possible and hopefully contact Arabic media before Mom heads over there but we're running out of time. "Non-Nicole life" continues to resist being pushed aside - my step-father handles updating the website but he's also working full time, raising (keeping an eye on?) my younger brother and attempting to prepare for a visit to Syria.
As the entire family has found, we can put aside our normal lives for a few weeks and concentrate on the search, but it eventually catches up and demands attention. Then you feel guilty that you can't spend as much time on the search as you used to - one of the many reasons we need to have closure on this.
As promised, "The Province" in British Columbia has published a new piece on Nicole.
I noticed in the comments that a volunteer has contacted various international schools in Syria hoping to find foreign hotel guests that are Syrian residents. A fantastic effort to help us do things we haven't found the time for yet. Unfortunately, it appears that it's summer break, so not only do we have to wait for school to resume, the teachers may have moved on - either home or to other countries. Hopefully we can find them before September and the new school year.
People living in Syria are often asking how they can help. An idea that just came to me is to try and find out where Nicole stayed in Damascus on March 17th, 18th and 19th. She met some people in Damascus who we would love to chat with, and we'd like to see if anyone staying in Damascus was also staying in Hama (and thus might know her).
Knowing Nicole's tendency towards sleeping cheaply, the Lonely Planet suggests these three places:
Al-Rabie Hotel - 231 8374
Ghazal House - 231 3736
Al-Haramain Hotel - 231 9489
They are all located on Sharia Bahsa which is the "traveller's ghetto" and the guide says that they're often full so she may have been forced to stay elsewhere, but it's a good place to start. If you're in Damascus and feel like calling (or visiting) these hotels, it would be great to find out that she slept there on the 17th, 18th and 19th. We can then have Gary and/or the cops retrieve a guest list and see if it matches our other ones.
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