My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from March 4th to 31st

March 31st (Noon):

Today marks the two year "anniversary" of Nicole's disappearance from the Cairo Hotel in Hama, Syria.

We have refused to give up the search. To make this clear to Syrian officials and police (and Canadian officials), and to follow up on leads, Gary and my mother returned to Syria last week. I have been receiving nightly emails just to keep in touch and do some research for them, but they're not sending too many details so far. I will be updated in person upon their return. It is very tiring for everyone when they are in Syria - the constant stress and activity in a strange place is difficult. We are hopeful that this visit will provide answers.

When my mother returns in a few days, I will fill everyone in on what has happened.

Some volunteers continue to inspire. I needed some Arabic translated early yesterday and had it done and confirmed within a few hours with the help of family friends and volunteers who I have been out of touch with for half a year. Another set of volunteers has cast fresh eyes on the search and are diligently investigating various scenarios and contacting people for us to ask questions and see what new information they might be able to find. And as I look through old emails for my mom, I am continually reminded by all the help provided by people around the world. It's very touching.

March 27th (Noon):

Some more reading of the 2008 Lonely Planet Syria guide reveals another mention of Nicole:

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

Although public transport doesn't go all the way out to Qasr ibn Wardan, it is still relatively easy to get there under your own steam if you're happy to get a lift with locals. Take a minibus from Hama to Al-Hamra (Sú20, 45 minutes). From Al-Hamra you have to hitch the remaining 20 km; although there's not much traffic going this way, whatever there is will most likely stop and take you on. You shouldn't have to wait much longer than 20 minutes or so for a ride out and about the same for the ride back.

While catching a ride with locals is not unusual in Syria, locals no longer recommend that single women travellers hitch in this area, since a young Canadian backpacker sadly went missing here in 2007. It's worth noting that the young woman was the first foreigner ever to disappear in Syria, and it's not yet clear if she even disappeared on the way here.

Sarouj and Twalid Dabaghein are 50 km and 53km from Hama respectively. The Cairo and Riad hotels in Hama both include a visit to the beehive houses as part of their organized trips out to Qasr ibn Wadan (see p164) You can also hire a car and driver or a taxi for around Sú600.

They've summed up the situation accurately. Other solo female travellers have done this route without a problem (I spoke with several a few weeks after Nicole disappeared) and we're not certain she ever made it that far before something happened. It saddens me that events like this make people less trusting of one another. Hitching and helping others is very common in Africa and the Middle East from my experience, and you don't want visitors forced to stay in tour buses and cars all the time without meeting local people.

Apparently the map in the 2008 LP still has the mini-bus station at the wrong location. Strange.

As you may have noticed, I've re-worked the format of the blog to help answer common questions and clarify what's happened. It's an easy way of feeling like I'm doing something. My mother and step-father are doing all the heavy lifting these days, I'm just posting to the blog and reading the relatively infrequent emails that come in.

March 23rd (Morning):

Click on the thumbprint below to see a map of Hama from the Lonely Planet (LP) Syria Guidebook (second edition). I have marked some relevant locations.

Hama Map

For a clearer view of the actual streets here is the Google Earth satellite image.

To orient yourself on the maps, the Citadel is the big green mountain in the northwest and the river should let you match the two (you may have to scroll the Google Earth map to the southeast). To get to the mini-bus station (which LP has at the wrong location) Nicole would have crossed the nearby bridge and headed northeast. By going directly north on the main road, she passes a park and then a construction/abandoned area on the west, but lots of little shops on the east side. North of the river, the first street heading east is an open air market with lots of people. On the Google Earth map, the mini-bus pick-up area is at the intersection at the bottom left corner of the park in the northeast with all the circles in it. The mini-buses are parked in a line on the street and once the first one is full, it leaves and the next one starts filling up. It's a 10-15 minute walk from the Hotel and Nicole loves walking. Given the crowds, it seems increasingly unlikely that Nicole ever made to the mini-bus station or else someone would have seen her.

I have also marked the Internet Cafe where Nicole attempted to send out emails the night before. It's just around the corner, 1-2 blocks away. We are presuming she went to that particular Internet Cafe because a pamphlet was found in her gear. When Gary and I were there, we stayed at the Noria Hotel (#32 on the LP map) and there was a second cafe right behind it.

Speaking of the Lonely Planet, the third edition of the Syria guide was released in 2008 and on page 239 it says:

While Syria is a very safe country for female travelers, the disappearance of a solo female traveler who was staying in Hama in 2007 serves to highlight the dangers of traveling alone in any country.

A reader mentioned the recently released movie "Taken" involving the sex trade and young western girls being kidnapped (in Paris, not the Middle East). I watched it last night and it's similar to the movie "Trade" (2007) that someone suggested last year. Both are disturbing in their similarities, suggesting that the sale of women and children is a known and prevalent practice. I don't recommend that my mother watch either, as it will only upset her. "Taken", despite various plot holes, was particulary perturbing as it shows how the girls are immediately drugged and addicted, and suggests that if they're not found within a few days, they'll never be found. I've always thought that no one could hold Nicole for long without her fighting her way free, but now I'm not so sure.

We continue to hope that her disappearance does not relate to the sex trade. Foreigner are just too risky to grab, especially in a country like Syria where there are so many other easier local targets. With no way to readily investigate the sex trade, we continue to direct our limited resources elsewhere until we see definite evidence that kidnapping and possible removal from Syria is what happened.

March 18th (Evening):

I had plans for a big update today - images of Hama with locations of key points of interest. Various technical difficulties have ended that dream, along with a distinct lack of energy - I'm exhausted tonight for some reason.

On Saturday I was very out of sorts for no particular reason as well. But then my wife pointed out that it was two years since we had seen Nicole off in Jordan and I'm thinking it might have been related - nothing else comes to mind.

A reader linked me to the search for Laura Archer, the Canadian who was kidnapped in Darfur (Sudan) earlier this week. In a rare case of good news and quick resolution, she was released. It was a pleasant surprise to see that.

The links to past articles weren't working consistently last week - I'm not sure how long that had been a problem. This has been fixed as of last night so readers can once again read old entries.

Given my lack of energy, I'm not going to update tonight, but I may get an update in on the weekend or Monday.

March 11th (Evening):

As of this coming Sunday, it will have been two years since I last saw Nicole as we parted in Jordan - her for Syria (and Lebanon and back to Syria) and me back to Canada. Having just re-read what I wrote last year around this time, I think I said all that needed to be said then (link is down below, though it's not working for me right now - the thrills of technology).

Discussions continue with the Foreign Affairs and the Canadian embassy in Syria regarding a return visit by my mother and Gary. Our hope is that the Canadian government continues to support us in our search for Nicole as they have in the past, particularly on the ground in Syria where we need it the most. As our search lengthens, the turnover at the embassy increases (most people are only posted for 2-3 years) and it's difficult to keep everyone engaged and enthusiastic, especially when we are several thousand miles away and communications often have to pass through a number of people.

The Syrian government has indicated that they're still very interested in finding out what happened. High level officials continue to meet with Hama officials and we've been recently told of additional police activity that we were unaware of - leads being followed, ads being placed in newspapers. As someone who likes to know everything that's going on, it has not only been difficult to let my mother and step-father take over some key roles, it's difficult to handle having stuff happen in Syria that I don't know about. Of course, I'd rather that things were happening that I didn't know about than knowing that nothing is going on. I can imagine that the Syrian police at times are thinking, "who is this random Canadian (family) who feels he (they) should know all about our investigations and is trying to tell us what to do? Just let us do our jobs the way we know how...".

At this point we're looking to generate a list of key questions/avenues of investigation that we're hoping can be answered/pursued when mom visits Syria, and from there decide what to do next. But not tonight, I'm too tired.

March 4th (Evening):

I was dreading another update tonight but then I spoke with mom for a bit after sending some emails relating to Nicole. She was full of things to talk about that I hadn't thought of which definitely leads me to believe that I'm zoning out a bit on this. Not so good.

A few weeks ago, mom flew out to Vancouver and spent some time with Gary and met with the RCMP. Nicole's case is being run from the British Columbia Major Crimes unit because that's where she lived, so while we talk to the RCMP by phone and email, and they've occasionally visited us in Toronto, we don't meet face-to-face too frequently.

While in Vancouver, Gary and mom had the upsetting task of going through Nicole's items and figuring out what to do with them. Mom flew back with the last of Nicole's negatives and photos, as well as her journals and some select items of clothing. As anyone who has a lost a close loved one knows, it's not easy to go through their belongings.

Right after she returned from Vancouver, Mom was notified of an extra bank account of Nicole's that we didn't know about that was going inactive. There were no leads - no transactions or anything during the relevant time - but once again mom had to visit a bank and explain the situation. They weren't really engaged in the conversation until mom mentioned where she went missing and it turns out the bank manager was from Aleppo, Nicole next destination in Syria once she was done in Hama. It's surprising how many Syrians you will find in your day-to-day life once you start talking about Nicole, and universally, they all want to help.

An old friend of Nicole's contacted me this week. He had not heard of her disappearance until now and was very shocked, as everyone is when they first find out. It is so clear in his emails how important Nicole is to him that it really touched me. As I've said before, Nicole had a big impact on a lot of people.

In international news, Hilary Clinton announced yesterday that the United States will soon dispatch a pair of senior envoys to Syria for discussion with the government. I don't know if this is good, bad or irrelevant to what we're trying to do. I'd love to get on the agenda, but not being American, and given the many larger issues facing the two countries, I don't see it happening. If you happen to have contacts in the U.S. State Department that could help, give 'em a call!

A real surprise to me tonight was that mom had to remind me that two years ago this week I was in Egypt with Nicole. I know we're coming on two years since Nicole disappeared, but I tend to forget that I was in the Middle East with her just a few weeks earlier. Demonstrating the risks of the area, another friend of mine was in Egypt late last month and on her way back through Cairo to fly home, as you may have seen in the newspapers, a bomb blew up in the market. There were some frantic emails flying around for a while before reports confirmed that no Canadians were injured. These sorts of things are so rare, but so powerful that it can turn you away from an entire country or region of the world.

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