My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from October 14th to December 20th

December 20th (Noon):

Now that Amanda Lindhout is back in Canada more details are emerging on what happened and some are quite notable. First, they hired ransom "specialists" at a rate of $3,000 a day to assist with freeing Amanda because the government is not only not trained in that stuff, their official advice is to do nothing and not pay a ransom. We haven't spoken too much about the specialists we've hired over the past few years, but I can confirm the daily rate as about average. This is why it's so expensive to do these searches, and we don't face a ransom demand (if only!) We can also confirm that the government does not have specialists trained in retrieving missing people or navigating foreign legal systems.

Second, this Toronto Star article details how Amanda's family and home town kept everything secret, particularly the fundraising, so that the kidnappers didn't raise the ransom demands. Our approach to finding Nicole has been a mix of secrecy and openness, but once again that's because we aren't facing a ransom situation. There are a number of items that we have not released yet because it would hurt the search, but there are many more items that we never would have learned or discovered without the help of all the volunteers who have learned of our search and tried to help.

Speaking of volunteers, in the past few weeks I've had someone in Jordan contact me and ask for posters to put up and give to a friend heading to Damascus. I've also had someone looking at the Cairo Hotel guest list and trying to find one of the last few guests we have not spoken with. A third contact, a Syrian who is currently in North America, has provided an insider's view on which newspapers are relevant (and cheap) in Hama, should we need to raise public awareness again. Back in 2007 we paid a substantial sum to get ads into the newspapers, but since we weren't in Syria at the time, we never really knew if they were published and where they were published.

Google alerts directed me to this page a few weeks ago. This page bothers me a lot because at the top it implies that by donating to the website, you'll help find Nicole. But the website has no affiliation with our search and no funds are directed towards the search. I believe it's a clearinghouse for missing person information, and my mother put our search on the site. The site may do good work, but I don't like how it markets itself. If you want to donate $150 to find Nicole, please use the official website and it will go directly towards our bills for international search specialists.

As a result of some specialist work, we have been able to rule out a lead involving a substantial amount of cash being paid to the Cairo Hotel desk clerk allowing him to start his own business soon after Nicole went missing. The source of the funds has been determined and it is unlikely to have been a payment for Nicole. I am very happy we were able to tie up this loose end.

December 6th (Evening) - Nicole's 35th Birthday:

(Posted by my mother)

Today is Nicole’s 35th birthday.

It is unbelievable that this is now the 3rd birthday to pass since we last heard from her. At first we counted the number of days that she had been missing, then that turned into the number of months. Now it is coming up to 3 years. It feels like an eternity.

Once again I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for everything they have done to support the family in trying to find Nicole. As time passes, I appreciate more and more just how important that support has been. As with any traumatic event, it takes a while for reality to set in and until it does, you are just going through the motions of living.

Unfortunately, we still do not know what has happened. Despite the time that has passed we remain hopeful. As more than one Syrian authority has assured us, the fact that nothing has been found is an indication that she is still alive. If she had met a tragic end, they claim they would have found her by now.

We have made some progress this past year. After 2 years of repeatedly asking, we were finally allowed to take our private investigators into Syria; however, they were not allowed to ‘investigate’. They could only observe and advise us, but even that was helpful. We were also able to tie up another loose end. There was a possibility that she had been trafficked to North Africa. Just this month we have been able determine that this was not the case. However, it does not mean that she wasn’t trafficked to other parts, e.g. Dubai. Trying to get at the truth has been such a painfully slow process. We’ve learned that nothing, nothing at all, happens quickly in the Middle East.

Not a day goes by without thoughts of Nicole filling my mind. At first the most painful were those of what was suppose to be. She had just moved in with Gary and they had their whole lives ahead of them. She had just turned 32 and had at least another 50 years of life and adventurers. We had plans for future trips with them, to travel up and down the west coast. And the list goes on. Now the pain is in not knowing. Not knowing whether she is still alive. Not knowing what has happened. Not knowing when we might get some closure. It is just so sad.

I always told her that no matter how grown up she got, that since she was the only daughter I had, she would always be ‘my little girl’. I miss my little girl.

So again Nicole, wherever you are, Happy Birthday Sweetheart.

Love you forever, Mom

November 29th (Noon):

A few weeks ago my mother visited the Syrian Embassy in Ottawa again. You need a visa to enter Syria so mom refreshes it every six months in case she needs to suddenly fly over. While at the Embassy, she also met with the Syrian Ambassador to Canada. While such meetings are satisfying in that you can share your frustrations, they do not tend to lead to anything. Still no new word from Syria or the Canadian government.

Speaking of the Canadian government, we have had many heated discussions with the Freedom of Information people – the people who are supposed to be protecting our rights to get our own information. They are several months behind in providing the result of our FOI request (but now that it is four months late it's being treated as a “priority”) and it is extremely frustrating. Needless to say, should we find new information or leads in those notes (once we eventually get them), we will not stay quiet about the delays.

The recent release of Amanda Lindhout in Somalia gives some hope that this could have a happy ending, though that is a much different situation. Of note to me was the comment that the federal government didn't want to be involved. Right from the Prime Minister's office the message came down to stay away from the situation. That may be due to the ransom demands and Canadian policy to never pay ransoms. It may also have to do with the recent wave of Canadians being selectively abandoned abroad and not wanting to open up the issue again. We certainly feel abandoned in this past year.

A reader recently sent me this CNN story on Ani Ashekian. Ani is a Canadian who went missing in Hong Kong about a year ago. Just like Nicole's disappearance, she was at a budget hotel, everything was normal, and the next day she disappeared and there are no clues or evidence. The family didn't realize she was missing for several weeks as well. What is notable about this link is that it's CNN – we have had absolutely no success in interesting the American media in Nicole's disappearance. I'm still not entirely clear how they pulled it off, though I presume the backing of the American mystery author (watch the story to see what I'm talking about) may have helped.

Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of my father's death. He was a high profile reporter in Ottawa. When he died, Stephen Harper stood up and spoke of him in Parliament. I continue to wonder how different this search might have been had he still been alive. I suspect we may still not have found anything, but I think the government may have helped us look a bit harder.

On a more positive (and slightly off-topic) note, my other sister is visiting this weekend and it is always a pleasure to spend time with her. It was good to catch up on things and we enjoyed the unseasonably warm weather here in Toronto.

November 17th (Evening):

The search for 17-year old Mariam Makhniashvili right here in my Toronto neighbourhood continues to intensify. The police have not only started interviewing all the students at the school, they are also going door to door and visiting 6,000 people in nearby houses, apartments and condos. In addition to that they've combed through over two dozen local library computers AND have rummaged through the garbage deposited at the dump in case their search panicked anyone into discarding valuable evidence.

Did I mention they were scouring local parks with helicopters and infrared sensors?

*THIS* is the kind of activity we wanted to see in Syria. We shouldn't have had to pay to put this search into the news, the search itself should have been news for the people of Hama and Damascus. If the police and government really cared about tourists and the safety of women travelling in Syria, they would put forth these kinds of efforts. No excuses, no single detective wandering around talking to people. Real police work and real effort. And then if we can't find Nicole? Well at least we did what we could and can walk away without guilt.

Much like Nicole, Mariam disappeared into thin air with no witnesses or evidence. Which just goes to show that it's not something that just happens in Syria. The lack of results has me wondering if it's like our search - at first we concentrated on where we expected Nicole to be the day she disappeared, travelling to Ibn Wardan - but then as that proved fruitless, we came to realize that she probably never left the hotel, or that something else happened (offered a ride, change of plans) that we've missed. And just like us, the passage of two months makes evidence gathering that much more difficult. I'm watching this case very closely.

A family friend noticed another travel article on Syria and sent it our way. This article is particularly upsetting since it specifically refers to the Cairo Hotel and how safe it is in Syria. To be fair, it's safer than I expect most people think, but one shouldn't blindly visit without knowing the risks. Nicole knew the risks, which is why we're so surprised that she disappeared without any clues or uproar.

A reporter from the Toronto Star contacted me a few weeks ago. She interviewed me back in 2007 and now that she was in the Middle East, she wanted to follow up. I appreciate the media folks who keep tabs on their stories like this. For now we don't have too much new news to report, but hopefully we will one day.

November 1st (Evening):

One of Syria's goals these days (and pretty much every other country in the world) is to increase tourism. As such, every time my mom reads articles like this one extolling the virtues of Syria, she wants to contact the writer and clarify that it's not necessarily as safe as you think, and if something goes wrong, not too much may be done about it.

The article link was sent by a reader who also wrote to the editor of the Guardian (the newspaper that published it) saying that a bit more balance to the reporting would be good (though travel articles aren't generally all that objective and are mostly funded by the place being visited). It may help to have people contact the Guardian, if only because our search hasn't had any exposure in the United Kingdom.

And it does get us wondering how much this affects our search. When the (former) Minister of Justice says Nicole is just "having an adventure" two years after she disappeared, it's tough to think that he isn't concerned about his country's image. Quite frankly, I think the best thing for the image of Syria would be to find Nicole and show that while problems happen anywhere, you're in good care in Syria. It worries me that maybe they can't do that because finding Nicole exposes a wider web of deceit and corruption.

Speaking of two years, Nicole left on her trip exactly three years ago today. She is now two and half years late.

A friend of Nicole's pointed out that the latest version of the Lonely Planet (3rd 2008) for Syria no longer recommends the Citadel Hotel in Palmyra, where Nicole stayed. But it's hard to tell if that's because the place has gotten worse, or because the writer of the second edition that Nicole was using just wasn't very good (it appears he/she may not have done as thorough a job as one would like, especially looking at the errors and so on that we found).

October 14th (Evening):

A few months ago my mom submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Canadian government for all the documents they had on Nicole. As I may have mentioned before, a key document had gone missing between Syria and Canada and so we wanted to make sure there weren't any more that we hadn't seen. The government insisted we submit a formal request for the information.

This past week the government got back to my mom and said they can't release information relating to me, or Gary or anyone else in the family involved unless we each give our explicit written consent. So each of us had to hurriedly mail a letter to Ottawa giving approval. An incredibly frustrating process.

Here in Toronto the backpack of the missing 17-year old girl was found and the police immediately set up a command post nearby so they can talk to all the people in the area and search for clues. This is exactly what should have happened in Syria when Nicole went missing, let alone when we reported her missing a month later. But instead we were assigned a single detective from the local force. Is it any surprise that she hasn't been found?

A devoted volunteer reviewed all the blog entries and mentioned a point from way back - the Cairo Hotel reported Nicole missing on April 2nd and the "political police" (there are a half dozen or so different types of police in Syria, similar to FBI, local police, CIA in the States) investigated and apparently decided it wasn't a political disappearance by April 6th or 8th.

Notwithstanding the *incredible* frustration of the political police investigating but not telling the Canadian Embassy, it struck our volunteer as odd that the Syrians were able to "clear" Nicole so quickly. This is someone who has been travelling and meeting people for the past five months, including a few days in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan, and they checked it all out that quickly?

It's possible that they just verified she'd been to the typical tourist spots and hadn't been noted by anyone, but if they have all these kind of information, why did it take so long for them to even verify whether she was still in the country when we came looking for her? There seem to be gaps in this story, but I don't know if that's because our information is wrong, our understanding of how things work is wrong, or if there's something being hidden in Syria. I sure would like to find out though.

My mother sent another letter to the First Lady - President Al-Assad's wife. She responded to our first two letters and we're hopeful that this keeps up awareness of the search for Nicole.

Google Alerts sends me an email whenever it links to a new page mentioning Nicole. A few weeks ago it found this "Forensic Astrology" page. It's unusual in that a lot of effort has apparently gone into the page, but we've heard nothing (that I'm aware of) from the author. It's entertaining, but unfortunately does not quite fit the facts as we know them.

My brother came home for the long weekend and seems to be doing okay despite eating only soft foods. The scar on his jaw isn't noticeable and the second scar is inside his mouth. We'll have to see what kind of long term effects the injury will have.

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