My Sister, Nicole Vienneau, Has Gone Missing in Syria - Updates from October 2nd to 31st

October 31st (Noon) :

Tomorrow marks one year to the day since Nicole left on her trip to western Africa and the Middle East, looking forward to once again visiting places that few North Americans ever see, and meeting people of different cultures and backgrounds. Nicole disappeared seven months ago today, and we still have no clue what happened to her that morning.

Another traveller to Syria reported back on their trip. One item that stuck out as particularly worrisome is the man they encountered in Palmyra who thought Nicole had already been found. This was one of our big concerns back in August when the two Spaniards were arrested - people might not read to deeply into the article and assume that Nicole had been found. The last thing we want is for people to stop searching for or thinking about Nicole because they assume the search is finished.

On a more positive note, the same man confirmed that the police had questioned many people in Palmyra, which is reassuring. We're not convinced that people will tell the police what they know, but at least the questions are being asked and work is being done.

A reader has suggested that we try and contact Robert Fisk, a long-time and very experienced reporter based in the Middle East. He may have contacts or knowledge that could help us. Unfortunately, he no longer has a public email address, likely as a result of hate mail (he tends to write rather inflammatory articles). If anyone can manage to get contact information for him, it would be greatly appreciated.

MP Dan McTeague's office got in contact with us soon after the last blog entry. He's planning on meeting the Syrian Ambassador this week, so hopefully that will keep some attention on our search and perhaps provide an update on what's going on in Syria.

Our Syrian tourist also visited Hama for a day and noticed that the water levels were really low and the place had a horrible smell as a result. This is exactly how Nicole described the city back in March - I'm having trouble imagining a city that smells like sewage for five months of the year! But with the water so low, the famed water wheels aren't turning, and it's sufficiently shallow that I'm guessing Nicole's body would be discovered if it is within the town borders.

My mother sent me the updated list of donors and donations. The family tries to send out thank you notes either by email or actual mail. If you donated and did not hear from us, it's because we don't have the appropriate contact information (or your email address bounced). Please email me if this is the case as we don't want anyone to think they've been ignored.

I have likely mentioned this before, but it struck me again this week - one of the many reasons I want Nicole to return alive and well is so that she can see the outpouring of love and affection from people around the world. To know that she touched those she met and befriended, and that we've all put such an effort forth in trying to find her. It occurred to me that everyone should have a chance to realize how much they've made life better for other people, and how great people are in general. I just wish they didn't have to disappear in Syria in order to do so.

October 27th (Noon) :

The search for Arthur Thiry has definitely stalled. His school has not responded, though with over 300 emails in my "Junk Mail" folder, it's not entirely impossible that it went astray, though that doesn't seem to have happened so far. Putting my email address into the public domain like I have has certainly increased the spam.

Amine Benyahia has been no easier to find. A volunteer in the Netherlands has offered to call the number we had found. A second volunteer has spoken with a friend of a relative of Amine, who says Amine was never in Syria. Given the distant linkage, we're hoping for a more direct confirmation. Another reliable source has indicated that there is only one Amine Benyahia in all of Switzerland. I find it difficult to believe that there are several Swiss-Algerian men with the same name in the world, but we already had the coincidence of a second "Kathy Powers" residing in Damascus, so it's not impossible.

In the Toronto Star today, it mentioned that Liberal MP Dan McTeague (Pickering-Scarborough East) travelled to Syria to investigate the Arar case as the "parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad". I didn't realize such a position existed - we've certainly never heard anything from the current secretary (if the position still exists). If anyone has links to Mr. McTeague, I would be interested in chatting with him about his experiences dealing with the Syrian government. Back in May we talked to a variety of politicians and former politicians who had been involved with Syria, but I don't believe he was one of them.

We've finally resolved confusion with regards to the various guest lists sent to me. A translation error had the dates listed incorrectly so guests that we though were at the Cairo Hotel on the 30th and 31st were actually there a week previous. That clears everything up, but dims our hopes for a second guest list and more potential contacts. We now have translated lists of all the guests who arrived at the Cairo Hotel from roughly March 21st onwards, but we don't have their departure dates. This makes it difficult to justify trying to find them, as it would be very unlikely that too many of them had stayed on until the 28th when Nicole arrived, let alone chatted with her. But we are reviewing the lists for any names that jump out from other hotels or interactions.

A volunteer sent me a double-take inducing photo of a group of Westerners in Syria at the appropriate time, one of which is wearing a dark red top, tan pants and a hat covering their face. He explained that upon finding the photo on an archeologist's blog as part of his search for hotel guest lists, he immediately started translating the German to see if there was more information. It turns out it was a male member of the team (it's difficult to tell in the photo) but it certainly made my heart skip a beat when I saw it. This reminded me of the importance of checking photos, though my experience so far is that tourists don't want other tourists in their pictures, so it's rare to see anything but desert and ruins.

A traveller returned from a visit to Syria and Hama and passed along a bunch of information on what people are thinking now that we've been gone from the country for three months. As expected, people are reluctant to talk about Nicole, not only out of fear of why people are asking them, but also because they'd kind of wish the whole thing would go away. I'm hoping that one of the reasons they're so fearful is that the police have been asking a lot of questions so anyone else doing the same is viewed as an informant. Or...it could be that everyone knows what happened and are afraid to tell us. My thoughts grow increasingly negative as the search founders.

October 23rd (Noon) :

It's been five days since the last update, mostly because there hasn't been a lot of new information, and also because I lost track. During the first month of the search, I wasn't working and was always on my computer, updating as information was received. For the next few months, I would come home from work and immediately spend a few hours catching up and posting information. That became very exhausting as the last thing you want to do after a day at work is sit in front of the computer doing more work.

Now that things have slowed significantly, I'm doing concentrated bursts of searching, generally in the morning. This lets me sink myself into the search while still being alert and energetic enough to follow up on items and contact people. It does mean that while I continue to read all emails within hours of receiving them, I may not respond until the next blog posting unless it's a "hot" lead. I've sent out a number of emails this morning and have managed to mostly keep on top of the October emails.

A traveller reported back after a two week visit to Syria. I really appreciate when people write to me about their recent (or not so recent) experiences in Syria and what people are saying about the search for Nicole. If people visit Hama, I always want to hear about that as well.

This particular traveller mentioned that pretty much every poster of Nicole is now gone. While I was in al-Hamra, every window had Nicole smiling back out at me, which was surreal. It appears, not unexpectedly, that these posters have gone down. But on a more positive note, people in Aleppo had heard about the "missing Canadian girl", which is good to hear as it helps us to think that at least most people in Syria are aware of our search, and maybe one day someone will contact us with new information.

A school of thought throughout this entire search is that the Syrian government knows exactly what happened to Nicole and just aren't telling us. Reasoning for this ranges from they don't want to be embarrassed to the possibility that they're getting "revenge" on Canada for the recent Arar incident. Unfortunately, Canada and Syria are not getting along so well these days, one of the very few countries in the world that Canada does not have at least a neutral relationship with.

An alternate school of thought is that Syria doesn't have a lot of friends at this point in time, so the opportunity to build some goodwill would not be wasted. I'm not familiar with the nuances of international diplomacy, so I can't say for certain. I've always sided with the "Syrians are trying to help" school of thought, but as we hit dead end after dead end, it's tempting to go the other way. Am I being naive? Are the Syrians taking us for fools?

October 18th (Noon) :

We found another Cairo guest today. Or more accurately, we realized that we'd already found her. The Italian woman listed right above Steve Glisoni turned out to be his girlfriend, but the translation of her last name was so poor that it didn't immediately jump out at them. Thanks to one of our star volunteers for making the connection for me.

The search for Arthur Thiry and Amine Benyahia continues. There are a lot of leads and follow up based on the links I've provided this past week, which means it really helps to give out those first couple of steps and have people follow it up from there. We had a volunteer in Belgium call some names in the phone book as well as the university and I've now emailed an administrator about our search who should be able to find Arthur.

One of the problems I repeatedly face with this search is convincing people that it's real and not an Internet hoax. Just this week I was forwarded an email about a missing Canadian that wasn't real, but kind-hearted folks pass them along in hopes that it will help, just like we were hoping people would do with our search. It's frustrating that spam and practical jokes makes finding Nicole more difficult, but certainly not a problem I'll be able to fix! If anyone does encounter questions, please direct people to the official website or this blog, or ask me to email them directly.

Is there anyone reading this from the Netherlands that wants to make a quick phone call for us? We have an A. Benyahia listed in the Netherlands phone directory so if you're interested in trying to reach this person, please email me. I suspect the Benyahia in Switzerland who appears to have been to Syria is a much more likely candidate (and remarkably difficult to get a hold of), but I don't want to get focussed on just one person in case it turns out we're wrong.

There aren't a lot of guests left at the Cairo Hotel. We're in the process of organizing the lists of guests that arrived prior to March 28th so we can see any longer-term guests, but I suspect if the guests who actually spoke with Nicole don't have any notable memories, there isn't much chance anyone else will remember anything. But of course, we have to check and make sure.

A reader brought up the Orontes river that flows through Hama and the waterwheels or "norias" that make the town famous. We had always assumed that if Nicole "fell" into the river, her body would eventually be caught in the wheels. As well, there are people playing in the river and living right beside it, so it didn't seem worth it to try and find her in the water. But what if her body was weighted? The desert seems a better place to hide something, but with so many herders and goats, perhaps the river is the best hiding spot? I know the water levels were low when Nicole was there because she mentions it as an explanation for the stench during her visit (she really didn't think much of Hama, I have to admit), but I don't think they were so low that you could see the bottom.

The problem is - what do we do about it? It's a big river, and there's little reason to think someone would hide a body in the portion that runs through town (though near a road is likely). If they were smart, it would be downstream. We can't ask the Syrian police to "search the entire river", so how do we narrow down a section to search?

October 16th (Morning) :

It's been a slower than usual couple of days. Ramadan ended last week, so we were hoping that might start up some more work in Syria, but I suspect the Syrian police are as stumped as we are in regards to where they should look next. There were no big breakthroughs on finding Amine or Arthur other than a possible email address for the latter via the university.

A volunteer suggested a scenario where the hotel gave Nicole incorrect directions to the bus station so that she would head off some place where she could be snatched up - this is based on the hotel directions card being retrieved from her gear by the manager after she didn't return from her trip. I hadn't considered this possibility earlier, but after thinking about it, I don't think it's too likely. Not only did Nicole have the guidebook as well the pre-printed cards saying where the bus station was, she also had a (sometimes frustrating) tendency to double check constantly that she was on the right route. She wouldn't have been heading in the wrong direction for long.

That being said, as I discovered back in May when I was in Syria, her guidebook was incorrect. The Lonely Planet puts the bus station several blocks north of where it actually is, in a slightly less public area. I'm not sure what Nicole would do if given conflicting directions, but being an experienced traveller, I suspect she was used to things changing from the guidebook and would have gone to the right place.

In my last update I mentioned a letter prepared by a volunteer to send to television shows. The sample letter is now available on the downloads page of the website.

On Sunday night I rented "Babel", a movie that several people mentioned had similarities to our situation. While I'd like to think of myself as Brad Pitt in general, there isn't a whole lot that's the same other than the terrain, the frustrating bureaucracy, and the early tendency of people to suspect terrorism is involved. It does capture some of what it is like in Syria (and other parts of the Middle East I've visited) - the rocky desert, the people, the crowds, and the police in their convoys of SUVs. It does make one wonder if Nicole's disappearance was just a random accident that some terrified family is hiding so that they all don't end up in prison or worse.

October 13th (Evening) :

We're getting some good leads on Amine Benyahia - a new email address and set of photos, as well as a second person with the same name and some contact information. Hopefully we'll have a response soon and he can tell us what he did or did not see at Qasr Ibn Wardan on March 31st.

A volunteer did some groundwork on finding another of the few remaining Cairo guests that we have not already found. Riro Arthur (b. 1987), registered at the Cairo on March 30th, and then registered again on March 31st as Arthur Thierry/Terry/Thiry. This suggests a passport with three names and a different desk clerk each time. It also suggests that Arthur planned on leaving town on the 30th, but for some reason stuck around for another day. I'd love to be able to find him and ask about his visit to Hama, but his name is a bit too common and/or badly translated to find so far.

Luckily, one of our star volunteers is very dogged in her pursuit of guests and has found an Arthur Thiry who attends the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, in the Faculte de Philosophie et Lettres. She then found his 2007 exam schedule showing that he's taking a course in "History and Society of Islam and the Arab World" (rough translation) and in 2006 he passed a course in "Modern and Ancient Literatures and Languages".

As the volunteer says, "right name, right age, living in Belgium, currently in a field of study relating to Islam and the Arab world". Could this be our person?

The problem is - we don't have any contact information. If you think you can help, email me and/or attempt to contact Mr. Thiry yourself (I know there are a number of Belgians reading this and looking to help). So far, we've had great success at finding people once the first steps are taken.

Another Cairo guest is an Italian national who was residing in Syria at the time. This should make them easier to find, though we thought that was true of the Americans as well. We never followed up with the Italian Embassy, but perhaps there is some value in doing so as they may have more relaxed privacy rules than the United States.

One of the side effects of leaving three days between updates is that there's a lot more to say and catch-up on when I do get around to writing. Fortunately, that's what we want - lots of things happening and new ideas flowing. A reader did remind me this week that given how young foreign women are watched constantly when they're out on the streets (it's hard for people who have not visited Hama to understand what this is like), it's inconceivable that she could have just disappeared without people noticing. Does this mean she got snatched in a private vehicle or empty minibus, or did she never leave the hotel?

Minibuses never leave empty, but perhaps a driver saw an opportunity and offered to leave immediately without anyone else? Nicole may have been comfortable with that as foreigners often get special treatment, though she would have insisted on still paying the usual rate. I am reluctantly becoming more and more convinced that someone saw something along that route or at the bus station, but doesn't want to tell us and/or the police. But I have no idea how to get around that.

I'd like to once again thank the people who email just to say they are thinking of us and/or would like to help in some way. I am not able to respond to many of them, but I don't want people to think that their emails are not read and appreciated. For volunteers, I keep all of the emails, but if someone has already volunteered and been given a specific task, then I tend not to respond to later volunteers as I feel like I'm sending a rejection letter when I say, "thank you for offering, but someone else has already been given the work".

One of our volunteers prepared a fantastic letter and package for America's Most Wanted. She put a big photo on the outside of the envelope to attract attention, she described all the main details of the case in the letter, and then she researched a bunch of media links to stories about Nicole to show that the case was credible and being followed. I'm going to see if we can put her letter on the official website as an excellent example on how to approach various shows and try and get them interested. Some absolutely great work.

October 10th (Evening) :

We've found Steve Glisoni. I continue to be amazed at how quickly we find people once we have even the slightest lead for all the volunteer searchers to follow. No word on Amine Benyahia yet, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time.

Unfortunately, Steve did not notice or speak with Nicole when he was at the Cairo Hotel. Nicole could be extremely chatty if she was in the mood: while in southern Egypt she befriended someone in an afternoon and we were sharing a taxi the next day; later we met someone on the street while waiting for the ferry to Jordan and he travelled with us for almost two days. But she also valued her "alone time", and from reading her journal, it looks like Syria, with its small number of tourists, was perfect after the frenzy of Egypt and more urbanized areas like Damascus. Unfortunate.

As expected, as the number of leads to follow has shrunk, it becomes more difficult to find new and interesting information for updating the blog. I've already moved to updating every other day, and depending on how things develop over the next few days and weeks, I may shift to every 2-3 days. The work we're doing now is slower paced and doesn't really lend itself to frequent reports. Of course, as news is learned, and help needed, I will be continuing as usual. I'm just giving a heads up so people don't worry.

October 8th (Noon) :

In a moment of quiet introspection a few days ago I suddenly realized that while I haven't seen Nicole since I travelled to Egypt back in February and tend to think of Nicole as missing for six months now, Gary hasn't seen his partner and soulmate for almost a year. She left for West Africa on November 1st, which is fast approaching, so eleven months have passed alone in Vancouver, with what little stuff Nicole left behind sitting in his house (she was a minimalist in all senses of the word and didn't own a computer or a television). It tears at the heart to think about it.

But as I sat down to write this, I realized it's not just Gary. My mother has gone even longer without seeing Nicole unless there was a quick airport visit during a flight stopover. It may have been as far back as February 2006 when Nicole and mom last chatted in person - a trip "home" that Nicole was reluctant to take (she was very careful with her vacation days as she loved to go on trips and long weekends with Gary). She kept hoping to bring Gary to Toronto during the summer but instead the holidays and special events always seemed to happen when it was cold and miserable here.

To be fair, with constant emails back and forth, it's not like there wasn't communication. For me, email is like talking to people in person because I "hear" their voice as I read it. But it's not exactly the same as an actual visit, and as I pondered the extent of this tragedy, I realized a new dimension of the heartbreak.

On the positive side, Gary just sent along the final numbers for the September fundraiser and it always makes me feel warm inside when I read about people's generosity and giving spirit. The list of donors and purchasers and so on really helps fight back the gloomy thoughts of the first few paragraphs.

I also received an email yesterday from a self-described "random person" who continues to keep up with the story as months pass, and wanted the family to know that she's thinking of us. It's good to know that we've touched so many people and I really appreciate that people are staying interested and making an effort to find opportunities to help.

No updates on the search today, just maudlin thoughts.

October 6th (Noon) :

I'm doing a bit of review of the search, looking for things that we might have missed or not fully followed up on. I've found a few items I'd like to go over in case anyone can help.

There are two people we're looking for:

#1 Steve Glisoni b. 1977

Steve was a guest at the Cairo Hotel and we believe he's a French archeologist (see September 25th entry). I emailed an address we had had but no response so far. He's listed as working with INRAP on page 13 of this (large) PDF document. Anyone want to take a crack at trying to reach him?

#2 Ameen/Amine Benyahia, born 1984, father's name is Abbas, mother's name is Monica.

I had almost forgotten the Swiss/Algerian tourist that was the sole visitor to Qasr Ibn Wardan on March 31st (presuming Nicole never arrived). If you go back to the mid-July blog entries you can read about our search for him - and a big thanks to our Swiss searcher as well as another volunteer who both reminded me of him this past week and a bit. We thought we had tracked down his employer but we're not hearing back. He is the person on the bottom far left in this picture from their home page and he's apparently into kick-boxing. How do we get a hold of him?

There are a variety of "interesting" pieces of information that I would like to keep in mind, though they could each be (and likely are) innocent coincidences:

a) The owners of the Internet Cafe that Nicole used sold the business and moved away a few weeks after she disappeared. We have not been able to find them.

b) The clerk at the Cairo Hotel left the hotel in May, soon after Gary and I visited. He was later retrieved so that my mother could speak with him when she visited in July. Reasons for his departure have been conflicting.

We also have some vague leads that are outstanding, but tricky to follow up on from outside of Syria (or even inside of Syria):

i) Soon after the news of Nicole's disappearance was made public in Syria, a man twice approached a local Hama newspaper with information but was turned away (complicated story involving a lot of confusion). What information did this man have that he felt compelled to return? And how do we find him?

ii) There are recent very quiet rumours of arrests in Hama that perhaps relate to Nicole's disappearance. If anyone has heard similar stories, please let me know.

I just wanted to do a general status update. Having the blog has helped keep track of what has and has not yet been investigated now that the search has entered it's sixth month.

October 4th (Evening) :

We have now spoken with Aaron and Daria! A few readers contacted me with the gist of the message and linked it back to an English website. Two of our top people finders then emailed the website/author and it got through to the couple. Unfortunately, while they vaguely remember some English speakers chatting in the lobby (which Nicole did), they have nothing clearer.

I received several offers from volunteers to help organize the hotel guest lists. I will be picking one and sending out the files. If you're not the person selected, be relieved - I don't expect it to be all that entertaining. But it may lead to additional guests that we haven't known about.

Now that we've found all the "American" guests at the Cairo (that we know of), I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. While I still have some ideas on things to do, not too many of them are achievable via the Internet anymore. I'll have to do some thinking as to other avenues to pursue. The problem is that the tasks have gone on for so long that I'm having trouble bringing up the energy to start fresh.

October 2nd (Noon) :

A couple of requests today:

If you can speak Thai, can you please email me, or post in the comments, a translation of this page? We believe the couple pictured are the Aaron and Daria who stayed at the Cairo Hotel when Nicole was there and are hoping the article can give us clues on how to find them.

If you can read Arabic and have several hours to donate, we have a problem with mixed up guest lists that I need help resolving. While he was in Syria, Gary quickly sent me 18 photographs of a guest list that we believed was the Cairo Hotel. I sent the photos to multiple translators but didn't keep track of which photos match up with which translated list. To make things more complicated, several photos are listing guests that don't match our existing records at all and we're not certain if it's a second list for the Cairo Hotel that we were previously unaware of, or whether we just have a bunch of things mixed up.

As a result, I would like to send about 25 Arabic photos and English guest lists to one person who is fluent in both languages and can take the time to match them all up. I suspect it's 1-2 hours of work or less, if only because reading the photos can be very tricky. Please email me if you can help.

A story was sent to me of someone who found a missing person in Syria by visiting the jails until he was found. We have often considered that she might be lost in a Syrian jail, but I never thought it possible that the Syrians would let us visit them and look for ourselves. Exactly how does one look at all the female prisoners and see if any of them are recognizable? Or do you bring a photo and ask the warden? This may be something on the agenda for when we next return.

Another reader mentioned nearby sites that Nicole may have visited such as al-Andarin and Shmemnis. While we've already investigated those (al-Andarin is beyond the Beehive Houses and Qasr Ibn Wardan, so we have only visited, but the locals have apparently searched), it did get me thinking. What possible turn of events might have happened that morning that could have sent Nicole in a different direction than we expect?

I have travelled relatively extensively with Nicole, and generally she plans a few days ahead with some flexibility based on how she feels. She doesn't try and cram lots of things into each day because her trips are six or more months so she has plenty of time and doesn't want to tire herself out. I can certainly see her accepting invitations to someone's home, though I also know she's incredibly wary. Even in Egypt she was visibly armoured against people offering to "help" because they were so often trying to sell something (though Syria is a less commercial that way). Her plans sometimes keep her in one place longer than expected, but I have never seen her change plans mid-day. But that doesn't mean it's impossible - it may just have never come up when I was with her (solo female travellers get offered a lot more opportunities than those with big male companions).

So what kind of opportunity might have come up that distracted her from what appears to be a plan to visit the Beehive Houses? Did she run into some other travellers on her way to or at the minibus station and they had already rented a vehicle that was covering more locations so she joined up with them for some nominal fee? Was she sitting in al-Hamra trying to hitch a ride and the only truck that came by was heading somewhere else first? Or perhaps the friendly (?) driver mentioned even better Beehive Houses in a nearby town? It's relatively well known that people get offered visits to Bedouin homes, but where would they have approached her without anyone seeing? Can anyone else think of things that might have distracted her from her planned trip? I want to make sure we're looking in the right place.

The thing is, Nicole is experienced. She's the type of solo traveller that would pass up an opportunity if there's too much risk. But she also demonstrated a willingness to hitchhike a week earlier in Lebanon. I'm imagining something as trivial as "all the minibuses to al-Hamra have left, but you can go this way on this minibus via X" and all of a sudden tragedy happens and we can't find her. Frustrating.

Return to LiveJournal