My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from November 3rd to 27th

November 27th (Evening) :

It seems that I've run out of things to say - I've started writing out paragraphs and then deleting them because I've already said the same thing earlier in the month, or even earlier in the week!

These past few weeks as winter has arrived here in Toronto, I've been down in general, and it's certainly showing itself in the search. New leads are rare and increasingly desperate. Those we find are quickly resolved by our team of contacts and volunters and we return to the "do nothing" state of waiting for the next bit of new information. Keeping Nicole's disappearance in the minds of the Syrians is proving difficult, which is why mom will be returning early next year, and without their continued efforts, we don't have much hope of finding out new information. With nothing to report in the blog, there is little feedback from readers and volunteers, which gives me less to report, and so on. I've finally started attacking the backlog of emails to look for missed or forgotten clues and that has me in the embarrassing position of responding to some people who wrote to us back in July!

On the weekend I was showing some old friends a video I have of Nicole and I sandboarding the sand dunes of Namibia back in 2001. Every time she comes on the screen, everyone goes quiet (or is that only in my mind?) and I have realized that that will be happening for the rest of my life unless Nicole is found. Three decades worth of photos and movies will be difficult to look at without a lump in the throat and people getting uncomfortable or sad. While this is true of any immediate family member who passes away, her youth and the never resolving "open wound" nature of her disappearance will haunt us for years. By so actively involving myself in the search, I've made not finding her that much more difficult to bear - a risk I was warned of early, and was more than willing to take.

And of course, I thought we'd find her.

November 22nd (Noon) :

I finally got an answer on Robert Fisk's mobile phone (Robert is the experienced UK reporter based in Beirut who we're hoping could offer insight and/or contacts), but it was a very confusing conversation. Making calls from Canada to the Middle East always seem to be that way, but normally I'm able to figure it all out. In this case, a woman answered and seemed very confused while speaking English with an accent (British?), but then every so often a male would speak with a British accent, seemingly unaware of the woman, and once in a while a dial tone would sound but the call wouldn't be disconnected. It was like I was connecting to two different phone lines and alternating between the man and woman. The woman didn't understand that I was calling from Canada - seemed unaware what "Canada" was - and insisted I had the wrong number before hanging up. We were reaching to think he might be able to help, but it would have been nice to get a hold of him. I don't believe he receives any correspondence sent via The Independent (his (former?) employer) or email, unfortunately.

It's been a slow week. The RCMP are busy with other cases, we've sent some things to the Syrian government but haven't heard back, and it's just a dark and gloomy time of year, which doesn't help moods any. Nicole's birthday is coming up (December 6th) and the family isn't looking forward to that. Christmas will also be difficult. Every few weeks I've been having dreams where we find Nicole, and they've been getting increasingly skeptical (I dream "am I just dreaming?"), but last night I dreamt that we found her killer instead. Seven and a half months is a long time to be missing.

November 19th (Evening) :

One of the side effects of making my email so public is the vast number of junk emails I now receive. The new Hotmail (which, might I add, I despise) does a relatively good job of separating them out and putting them right into to my junk folder, so I don't normally check to see if I'm missing anything relevant (I get 300+ junk emails a week).

Fortunately, I decided to check a few days ago as I found an interview request from Wired.com. I'm not sure if it will go anywhere (the MSNBC.com interview never appeared) but I'm hopeful - the blogging angle helps attract media attention from the tech-savvy.

More importantly - what other emails have I missed? That's what is worrying me a bit now. It doesn't feel like I've missed out on anything, but how would I know? And I hesitate to ask people to contact me if they were expecting but didn't receive a reply, because I'm often just not able to respond to everyone that deserves a response.

Thus, if you happened to email me with a particularly important piece of information (such as, "I found Nicole") and I didn't respond, please try again - I'll do a better job of reviewing the junk mail folder.

I've finally got my act together and scanned in the Arabic version of the Riad Hotel guest list. At this point, I don't think it's likely that we'll get much more out of contacting Riad Hotel guests, so I'm not going to post it publicly, but if you're interested, let me know and I can forward you a copy.

November 16th (Noon) :

Another quick update - despite what I indicated on the 14th, it turns one of our contacts in Syria, as well as the police, *have* spoken with the former owners of the Internet Cafe. They don't remember her, and there's apparently nothing too suspicious about their reasons for shutting down/selling the business. Kind of what I expected, but I can't afford to ignore any possible leads.

November 15th (Evening) :

A quick update on the news from yesterday. I received the link to the actual article as well as a link to a second article on the subject (link worked late yesterday, not so much today). Thank you to everyone who sent the information as well as translations. Out of curiousity, if our various Arabic-speaking readers could view the comments on these articles and see if there's anything relevant, it would be appreciated.

Fortunately, Foreign Affairs officials as well as Syrian police have directly confirmed no link between this person and Nicole's disappearance. In fact, they cast doubt on the accused being charged with murder at all! Not sure what to think about that.

We're planning a return trip to Syria for my mother and Gary, though nothing is definite yet. We've had plans in the past but have changed them for various reasons, but we will get back there soon. A few interesting but vague leads have come up so I'll see if they lead anywhere before detailing them more fully.

November 14th (evening) :

Some disturbing news from Syria today.

On the Arabic-only portion of the www.syria-news.com site, there is an article about the arrest this week in Hama region of a violent criminal wanted for 2-3 dozen crimes including murder, theft and drugs. Looks like he's been on the run, but they found him and he had lots of weapons. Named M. Serhan F., we're making inquiries as to whether he could possibly be related to Nicole disappearing. If someone could provide a direct link to the Arabic version, that would be greatly appreciated. The Arabic text is in the recent comments of the blog. Thank you to the anonymous source who pointed out the link - that's extremely helpful.

With regards to the disappearing owners of the Internet Cafe Nicole was using, their names, according to the pamphlet found among Nicole's belongings, are Imad & Jehad Al-najjar. Likely just innocents who happen to have shut down their business at a coincidental time, but we still would like to reach them and see if they remember Nicole or anything else of interest in late March.

As usual, I suspect I will be distracted from following up on other items while this recent lead plays out, but there hasn't been a lot of leads to follow these days so it shouldn't make too much of a difference!

November 10th (Noon) :

It's been a hectic week for non-Nicole reasons, so I haven't had a chance to update, and I'm about to head out to the in-laws for the weekend so I need to make this quick.

Two conflicting points of view have come up recently, which points out the continuing difficulty in the search (though I suspect this sort of thing applies to any search). One the one hand, a contact suggested that if anyone knew something, we'd have found out because between the reward and fear of being found out by the police(if the police know you knew but didn't say anything, tha'ts not so good), they wouldn't want to risk the trouble. Even if it's a cover-up of some sort, the police just aren't paid enough to keep quiet (though I suspect there could be difficulties in claiming the reward if you've just turned in your superior officer!)

On the other hand, it's been suggested that no one would try and claim the reward because they know they wouldn't get it. The police or some government intermediary would claim it for themselves before we could give it to any random Syrian. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of ways around that. And in counter to that, our understanding is that everyone in Syria knows that if they help the government solve this case, they will be rewarded via promotion or whatever. That's what we're really hoping to use as a motivator, with the $1,000,000 Syrian Pounds acting as advertising (though we'd be delighted to give it out if someone brings us Nicole).

If we assume that someone would talk if they knew anything, and no one has talked, that leaves us with an incident that was known to very few people and well-hushed up. A contact has suggested that while still keeping it quiet, the shame of such an incident may force the family of those involved to resolve the issue themselves, either through exile or worse.

Thus, an area we should continue to concentrate on is people who left the area soon after either March 31st when Nicole disappeared, or early May when we kick-started the police investigation in Syria.

That once again brings us back to the Internet Cafe that closed shop and disappeared in mid-April, as well as the Cairo Hotel staff member who last saw Nicole and no longer works there (though he's been interviewed repeatedly, so it seems unlikely).

Is it possible that Nicole had something she really wanted to say to Gary, and when she wasn't able to access her Hotmail account on the Friday, she decided to quickly stop off and check it again Saturday morning before heading out, and something happened? The Cafe is below street level in a partially enclosed little square that's not easily visible from the street and not well lit. Did something happen there? How do we find out?

November 6th (Noon) :

[Text removed by Matt due to politically contentious topic]

We've heard back from Arthur Thiry via his school - he says he never met Nicole. I'm not sure if this means he is the person we are looking for and just didn't meet her, or whether he has never been to Syria. Unfortunately, the link to Arthur has just left on vacation so it could be some weeks before we find out.

I've been given Robert Fisk's mobile phone number, so I'm attempting to reach him. I'm not sure how successfull I'll be, so we have a back-up plan of mailing the Independent with an actual letter.

Another report came back from some travel guides in Syria and they say that people definitely know Nicole is still missing, and that the police are continuing to look for her. This is good to hear and helps counterbalance the reports that the police think she's already been found.

November 3rd (Noon) :

The search for Robert Fisk continues, but it's looking positive. The power of the Internet has certainly been revealed as a variety of different linkages between Robert and blog readers make themselves apparent. Friends of friends, former colleagues, and people offering to mail his employer directly from the UK (he doesn't accept emails via the International, but does read direct post) are all gratefully received. Hopefully we'll connect soon - I'm letting the leads play out in order of likelihood, with a preference for him contacting me rather than the other way around (less likely to be ignored/dismissed that way).

Speaking of media, I wanted to comment on how fantastic the various members of the media have been over the past six months. As opposed to the standard image of the media as heartless and only interested in the story, I consistently find them to be respectful and caring as try to work with us to get our story out. This may be related to my recently passed father being a relatively prominent media figure, but I don't think that's likely. Even now, when the story is cold, I continue to be contacted by some of the reporters informally as they read the blog and see opportunities where they can help.

Speaking of blogs, the search for Nicole was posted on Joshua Landis' Syria blog. Over the past several months a variety of people have mentioned his blog as something many people with interest in Syria read, so perhaps this will dig up some new ideas. I would have contacted Joshua earlier, but back in May when I first checked it out, the blog seemed more political than general interest. Further review has shown that not to be the case. As with all high publicity blogs, the comments can range from abusive and politically charged to helpfully intelligent. As an experienced blogger, the non-helpful ones are mostly amusing.

On a disturbing note, another rumour reached me that people in Syria think Nicole has been found. This has to do with the rumours we followed up on late in the summer where her body was reported to be in the well in Shmemnis. The Syrian police sent divers into the well and reported back via Interpol (and unofficially) that nothing was found. There was a man arrested for murder nearby, but no one knows how people have linked that to Nicole.

It's frustrating as the source of the rumour is someone I would have thought to be well-informed, and his source was supposedly within the police. This not only raises doubts again about whether the rumours are based in fact, it also suggests that we may need another media campaign inside Syria to remind people that she's still missing. It would be agonizing if even the police think she's been found and have been ignoring clues. It's also not so good if the government or police are purposely trying to promote the rumour in order to make the problem go away, though we have no evidence of that so far.

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