By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 24, 2005
From the darkness of a clandestine prison cell in Guatemala where she experienced torture, rape and other horrors, Ursuline Sister Dianna Ortiz has struggled for the past 15 years to reclaim herself, her faith and her life.
Finally overcoming her torturers’ sneer—“no one will care; no one will believe you”—she helped to found in 1998 the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C., which focuses on support for victims of torture and on education and advocacy.
It is the only organization in the world founded by torture survivors, and it brings together people of many faiths and cultures, with a common commitment to fight for human rights.
Just as she once waited for her torturers to come and take her life, Sister Ortiz now waits and works steadfastly in the darkness for the light of truth to shine on all the nation’s and world’s violators of human rights.
“For a while all my energy was focused on Guatemala, and I will always carry the Guatemalan people in my heart,” Sister Ortiz said. But “one of the lessons I learned from the Mayan people is we’re all one. There are torture survivors around the world—people from countries I never thought were being subjected to torture. When I think about our organization, that’s the common thread.”
She speaks to faith and human rights groups and reports that there are over 150 governments engaged in torture and that more than 500,000 torture survivors reside in the United States. In talking with youth she invites “students to be aware of what’s going on in our world and to be asking hard questions to our leaders.”
Sister Ortiz came to Atlanta in January to speak to a group of high school students as part of a program entitled “Speak Truth to Power.” Her horrific experience of torture and of having her credibility repeatedly assailed as a survivor is one of a series of accounts in a book of the same title compiled by Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy. Sister Ortiz also wrote an autobiographical book, “The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.” She spoke Jan. 14 at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
The torture survivors organization is very concerned right now about opinions issued by the new U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales when he was White House counsel on the permissibility of torture as an interrogation technique. They believe this has led to abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Station in Cuba.
Sister Ortiz believes the same protection against torture should apply to convicted terrorists as to other prisoners and says cruelty is not even effective in coercing reliable information.
“I can tell you from my own experience people will say anything during torture just to stop the torture. It’s not a reliable way of obtaining information.”
The coalition of torture survivors also opposes as immoral the use of interrogation techniques that do not utilize physical violence but attempt to break down detainees, such as blindfolding, making prisoners stand for 24 hours, isolation, sensory deprivation and psychological techniques.
Sister Ortiz spoke softly and at times struggled to regain her composure as she spoke in a telephone interview Feb. 8 about her 1989 abduction by men she believes were Guatemalan security forces to a clandestine cell in Guatemala City, where she sat in darkness and heard moans of human suffering.
The young nun, who was teaching Mayan children, was held for 24 hours. She witnessed others being tortured and murdered. She was gang raped and burned 111 times with cigarettes.
While much of her memory of her life before the abduction has been lost, she remembers that her torturers said if she ever survived, no one would ever care or believe her. She also remembers being put in a dark room where she was embraced by a woman who told her, “They will try to break you. Be strong.” In those excruciating instants, she knew that if she survived she would tell the world the truth of the nightmare that she and thousands of Guatemalan civilians endured as part of the government’s attempt to oppress and intimidate the poor masses.
“When you see people mistreated there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s such an overwhelming sense of helplessness, and at this moment I experienced absolute despair. But I also remembered if I survived I’d tell the world what I experienced.”
That horrid day of Nov. 2, 1989, the adventurous young Ursuline sister “died” in that cell, as did her image of God and her “trust in humanity.”
She would never wish such human cruelty and depravity on anyone—even her perpetrators. “Torture is a crime against humanity. In my experience with other torture survivors, I’ve never heard them express a desire for torture even on their torturers. And that’s not to say we don’t wish our perpetrators to be prosecuted.”
Sister Ortiz’ struggle to be strong, to recover and to fight for human rights testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome even the most gruesome assault on personal dignity. Following her escape, as she struggled to sleep through the night, to breathe, to survive, moment by moment, year by year, she was reborn with an awakening to her Gospel call to social justice and human rights.
“Part of my determination is to prove to my torturers that they have not destroyed me, they have not destroyed my will to live and to help those who suffer oppression. My faith calls and demands of me to live out the Gospel and sometimes that means speaking truth to those in power.”
During the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted from 1960-96, some 150,000 people were killed. Most human rights violations were committed by the Guatemalan military.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants to the United States, Sister Ortiz wanted to learn more Spanish and more about the Hispanic culture, which led her to go to Guatemala in 1987. She knew it was dangerous but thought conditions were improving and believed that as an American she would be safe. She worked with women and youth, teaching reading and the faith. Many she taught had family members who had disappeared or been murdered by the Guatemalan military, then one of most brutal regimes in Latin America. While not political, she began receiving death threats, addressed to “Madre Dianna,” and decided to leave the country for a few months and then return, unable to fully acknowledge the danger to herself.
She was reading in a garden of a retreat center when a man who had threatened her before approached her at gunpoint and took her to a cell in Guatemala City where others were being tortured. Men accused her of being a guerrilla and interrogated her, burning her back or chest with a cigarette for every answer given. They gang raped her. She was then placed in a cell with another woman. A policeman put a machete in her hand with which she wanted to end her pain and kill herself. But he also put his hands on it and forced her to stab the woman to death, as they videotaped it. She was hung over a pit filled with corpses.
She did not expect to survive. But then her blindfold was removed and a tall, fair-skinned man named Alejando, speaking Spanish with an American accent, told the torturers that she was an American and her abduction was on the news. He said he was taking her to a friend at the U.S. Embassy. Driving her away from the prison, Alejandro repeatedly said he was sorry and told her that her abduction had been a mistake, that he was concerned about the communist threat to the wellbeing of Guatemala, and that if she didn’t forgive the torturers and forget everything, she would face consequences. At a traffic light, she jumped out and escaped.
In her interview in “Speak Truth to Power,” Sister Ortiz said when she told her story the Guatemalan president said the abduction never occurred and then claimed that it had been carried out by non-government elements and was not a human rights case. She filed a lawsuit against the Guatemalan government and went back three times to testify, but no suspects were even identified.
While she initially expected the U.S. government to treat her like a victim and help her prosecute her torturers, it did not. The U.S. Department of Justice interviewed her for over 40 hours and accused her, she wrote, of lying, then interrogated her friends and family. She believes that her case would bring to light U.S. backing of the oppressive Guatemalan military. In 1996 she held a five-week vigil in front of the White House demanding that the government release classified documents regarding human rights abuses in Guatemala, including documents from her own case. She met with then First Lady Hillary Clinton who she says admitted that the American in charge of her torturers could have been an employee of a U.S. agency. Later, in 1999, President Clinton said U.S. support of the Guatemalan military was wrong. At the Summit of Latin American Leaders in Guatemala, he said that “the U.S. support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”
Finally Sister Ortiz compelled the United States to declassify long-classified files on Guatemala. The files revealed that members of various U.S. agencies were working with the Guatemalan military and that the U.S. ambassador at the time of her abduction admitted to having contact with a military “death squad.”
“I don’t have trust in the Justice Department,” she said. “This has been a long journey for me. It is not easy for me to say, but I’ve learned in our government there are good people and there are some people who are extremely cruel people and quite powerful and willing to do whatever it takes to remain in power. And I worry for where our government is taking us today.”
While the Guatemalan torturers still haven’t been charged, Sister Ortiz began to stop using all her energy on the fight and on justice in Guatemala and instead to focus on recovery of her Catholic faith and the abolition of any form of torture worldwide.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights investigated her case and determined that Sister Ortiz was “kidnapped and tortured and that agents of the government of Guatemala were responsible for these crimes…” The Organization of American States completed a four-year investigation of her case and in 1997 found that she indeed was abducted and tortured by agents of the Guatemalan government, that the details of her testimony were credible and that the Guatemalan government had “engaged in repeated unwarranted attacks on (my) honor and reputation,” she said.
Sister Ortiz today lives in an interfaith but largely Catholic community of both lay and Religious in the Washington area. In her recovery process she took a leave of absence from her religious order for a while as she groped with her loss of faith and not feeling worthy to be alive or to be an Ursuline sister. “It just seemed odd that I would remain in a convent when I didn’t believe in God.”
But she did come back to God more deeply and experienced healing and treatment while living with other Central America torture survivors at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. Her image of God as a loving, gentle but passive God only found through Scripture and the sacraments died the day she walked into the clandestine prison. She now sees more clearly the Gospel call to challenge those in power, seeking justice and opposing violence.
“It was a day of my rebirth. It was a time to discern the God of here and now. I see God in people whose lives have been broken and shattered by torture and other forms of violence,” she said. She still relates to God as her shepherd but “I know the God who stands strong against violations of justice and oppression.”
Despite the nightmares and the piercing memories burned onto her chest and soul, memories which force her to pause during the interview to collect herself, she holds onto her faith and hope in the darkness, as she waits in her quest for justice for the full revelation of the truth.
Sister Dianna Ortiz will receive the 2005 “Voice of the Voiceless” Award in March from Annunciation House, a 25-year-old ministry of hospitality to the poor in the El Paso, Texas, Diocese.