Monday 19 August 2019

Unforgiving jungle offers up no clues to mystery of missing Nora

Garda team on standby to fly to Malaysia if it emerges that Irish teen has been abducted, write Maeve Sheehan and Niamh Horan

Meabh Quoirin thanks search teams looking for her daughter as dad Sebastien and police look on. Picture: AFP/Getty
Meabh Quoirin thanks search teams looking for her daughter as dad Sebastien and police look on. Picture: AFP/Getty
Nora with her family in St Stephen’s Green last year
Search goes on: Family photos of Nora Quoirin who disappeared almost a week ago. Photos: Reuters

Maeve Sheehan and Niamh Horan

The jungle terrain of the Berembun Forest Reserve in south-west Malaysia is as enchanting as it is unforgiving. Trees rise hundreds of feet from dense undergrowth inhabited by snakes and exotic insects.

Nestled in the foothills of the Titiwangsa Mountains, the 12-acre Dusun Resort offers safe and peaceful sanctuary from which to enjoy the enchantment of the forest.

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According to its website, there is nothing to do here but enjoy the fresh air, jungle views and peaceful strolls and listen to the birds, crickets and frogs.

It should have been a magical holiday for Meabh and Sebastien Quoirin and their three children. But within 24 hours of their arrival in the country eight days ago, the couple were living every parent's worst nightmare.

The Quoirins are an Irish- French family who have lived in London for 20 years. Meabh, who is chief executive of a consumer analytics company there, is from Belfast. Her husband, Sebastien, is French. His grandfather, Sylvain, is the mayor of Venizy, in north-central France. The couple met in Derry in the late 1990s, according to the local Derry Journal when both were at Ulster University in Magee. They shared a house in Aberfoyle Terrace for several years and later moved to London.

Their daughter Nora is 15 and a "very special person", her parents said in a statement issued on their behalf last week, and was "extremely excited" about the holiday in Malaysia. The last Nora's family saw of her was when they turned in, at the end of their first day in Malaysia as the two-week holiday stretched out before them. According to the police briefings, Nora was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom on her own and her siblings in a separate bedroom. When her father checked on her the next morning, she had vanished. Local Malaysian newspapers reported that her clothes were in her room, suggesting that she disappeared wearing only her nightclothes.

Sebastian reported his daughter missing by 8am, sparking a massive search and rescue effort involving more than 260 people, a helicopter with thermal-imaging capability, drones and search dogs. Indigenous trackers have searched the inhospitable terrain and it has been reported that police have been looking into local folklore about the 'spirits' that inhabit the jungle.

More than a week later, Nora is still missing, and the Royal Malaysian Police say they have no leads. The mystery of what happened to Nora grows more urgent with every passing day.

How could a child of 15, who according to her family gets anxious when separated from them and must be cuddled by her mother before she goes to sleep, leave her room and disappear alone in her nightclothes, into the dark jungle alive with strange noises and exotic creatures?

Nora's family are convinced that she was abducted. But without evidence, the Royal Malaysian Police say they are treating her disappearance as a 'missing persons' case.

The Dusun Resort is surrounded by wire fencing and there is CCTV on the grounds. Police told reporters that there are gaps in the fencing and that the CCTV monitors the reception areas but not the chalet that Nora's family were staying in. The New Straits Times quoted a local man who claimed that the CCTV captured no images of Nora.

A window at the cottage was open. Police had briefed reporters that Nora may have climbed out through it. At first this was reported as an upstairs bedroom window, but police later clarified that it was a downstairs window in the living area. When questioned, police told reporters it was possible to open the window from the outside, if it wasn't locked on the inside.

The windowpane revealed another clue - a fingerprint that has yet to be identified. The deputy police chief, Che Zakaria Othman, said lab results were back and it was still being "analysed". There were also reports of a footprint. The fire and rescue department's assistant director, Ahmad Mukhlis Mokhtar, told media that search dogs found a footprint in the jungle. "But when we conducted a search there, we couldn't find her," he said.

However, police dismissed these reports last Friday. They said they had no leads. They did disclose that they had questioned 20 people at the resort and that they were checking staff's email and phone communications.

Malaysia's economy relies on international tourism and the industry works hard to protects the country's reputation as a safe destination and, for the most part, it is. But the British Foreign Office and the US State Department warn tourists of an increased risk of abductions in one eastern pocket of Sabah state in northern Borneo. The US advisory said that in this region "terrorist and criminal groups" may attack "with little to no warning, targeting coastal resorts, island resorts and boats ferrying tourists to resort islands". But the Negeri Sembilan state visited by Nora and her family is a safe area.

The Quoirin family have never wavered from their belief that Nora was taken forcibly from them. Within hours of her disappearance, they believed it was a "criminal" matter. As police insisted it was a missing person case, the Lucie Blackman Trust, a British charity that helps families in crisis overseas, circulated a post on social media to say police had told the Quoirin family directly that "they are treating it as both an abduction and missing persons case".

No one knows Nora better than her parents. In moving statements released last week, they said their daughter would never venture off alone into unknown terrain. Nora was born with holoprosencephaly. This means that she has a smaller brain, they said. She spent a lot of time in hospital as a child and attends a special school for children with learning and communication difficulties. She has limited verbal communication, can read "like a young child", cannot make or receive phone calls or manage money, and struggles with buttons and washing her hair, and with her co-ordination. She likes to walk with her family but her balance is "limited".

"She is fun, funny, and extremely loving. With her family, she is very affectionate - family is her whole world and she loves to play games, like Cat Bingo, with us. She likes to tell us silly jokes and wear clever, colourful T-shirts. She is not like other teenagers. She is not independent and does not go anywhere alone," the family statement said.

As fears grow for Nora, a lot has been happening behind the scenes. Gardai have been closely monitoring the police investigation in Malaysia and have placed one of their specialist teams on standby, if it transpires that Nora has been abducted.

The team is attached to the National Negotiation Unit, set up last year as part of the Special Tactical Operations Command. Much of its work is carried out in secret. Its detectives are highly trained in hostage and kidnap situations, violent stand-offs and negotiating with criminals and terrorists. They have been deployed overseas in the past to secure the release of Irish citizens in abduction or extortion cases and work closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Department of Justice asked gardai to consider whether the crack negotiating team should be deployed. Senior Garda sources say that if Malaysian police find evidence that Nora has been abducted, and if Malaysian authorities don't object, a team will be deployed.

In the meantime, gardai are working closely with French and British police. Last Friday, senior management sent the Garda liaison officer attached to Interpol to Malaysia to liaise with local police, the UK and the French.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, the Quoirin family are considering offering a reward to help find Nora. An anonymous donor has offered a substantial sum of money to fund it. More than €80,000 has also been raised by a Go Fund Me page to help allay the family's expenses. The family have been liaising with Malaysian police about the possibility of a financial incentive, the Sunday Independent understands.

Jim Gamble, a former police officer who investigated the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from an apartment in Portugal, said a reward was an "appropriate tactic" in a country with significant levels of poverty as well as affluence.

"I think the family need to throw the kitchen sink at it and consider the benefits of a financial incentive as a motivator and, if there is a criminal element to this, then it could help prompt someone's conscience," he said.

Gamble, who has been in regular contact with the family, said they can learn "cruel lessons" from the case of Madeleine, who vanished while on holiday on the Algarve. As a former police officer, he said Malaysian counterparts need to conduct several lines of inquiry simultaneously and not sequentially, and must consider recent break-ins and opportunistic killings.

All week the Royal Malaysian police had expanded their search of the harsh jungle terrain for Nora amid torrential rain. One of the most harrowing scenes was of police playing a recording of Meabh's voice on loudspeakers into the vast depths of the forest: "Nora darling, Nora I love you. Mum is here." The family have expressed their gratitude to police. Yesterday, Meabh paid heartfelt tribute to the searchers, thanking them for their work, their prayers and their dedication. By Friday, police were back where they had started. The search for Nora has switched to the location where she was last seen, zooming in on the bedroom, the open window downstairs, the cottage and the forested area immediately surrounding it. A specialist team of elite commandos was enlisted to ensure that clues were not overlooked.

As darkness fell in Ireland last night, dawn was breaking in Malaysia amid the fraught search in a dark jungle for a missing girl who loves nothing more than a cuddle and a story from her mother before she goes to sleep at night.

Sunday Independent

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