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Mary McGrory

Thanks to Sister Alice

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, August 18, 2002; Page B07

Sister Alice Zachman is leaving her job as director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission but not her obsession with the subject. She's getting a grand sendoff next month, but she'll be right back volunteering the next day.

Things aren't that much better in Guatemala since she first set up shop in the basement of an old Northeast Washington house belonging to the Croatian Mission. Guatemala elected as president of its Congress Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a notorious military dictator. Human rights advocates still receive death threats, which Alice and her staff of six have tried to give the widest possible circulation.

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Now 78, Sister Alice, a small, round, beaming woman who generally wears a T-shirt to work, takes such setbacks in stride. "At least the war is over," she says philosophically, "and I think things would have been much worse without us."

Alice is renowned in the human rights world for her tenacity and her excellent disposition. She is incurably cheerful and nonconfrontational. And she is not cynical, even about the several generations of State Department desk officers of the Reagan-Bush Cold War era, when this government was taking the wrong side, backing military governments and funding death squads all over Central America.

Alice was constantly faxing and calling Foggy Bottom with "urgent action" bulletins about news she had received from brave souls in Guatemalan human rights groups who advised her about outrages as they occurred. State didn't want to hear, of course, but "they were always polite -- I guess it's in their nature -- they always listened, but they never did anything."

Alice is a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and for 22 years in her native Minnesota she taught school, which may explain her patience. The turning point came in 1975 when she visited a friend in Guatemala and was "absolutely smitten" by the beauty of the countryside and moved by the suffering of the people.

She got permission from her superiors to raise the consciousness and touch the U.S. conscience about the cruelty. Since coming to Washington in 1978, she believes she has saved lives by ceaselessly calling the attention of Congress, human rights groups, the press and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the plight of targeted civilians whose only offense was seeking justice. In Guatemala's savage civil war, 200,000 were killed and 50,000 were "disappeared." Alice says the information she passed on was never challenged.

It wasn't until Americans were involved in two notorious cases that shed hideous light on what was going on that Washington reluctantly took action against the oppressors. In 1990 a U.S. innkeeper in a remote rain forest was murdered. His name was Michael DeVine, and apparently he had showed sympathy for Mayan Indians. His body, with his head nearly severed, was found on the roadside. Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, an "asset" of the CIA, was the chief suspect. He was also implicated in the torture and murder of a guerrilla leader, Efrain Bamaca (also known as Comandante Everardo), who was the husband of Jennifer Harbury, a U.S. lawyer who staged hunger strikes both here and in Guatemala to protest her own government's failure to provide her information about his death. Alpirez was fired by the CIA, but, says Alice with a rare touch of irony, "he got $44,000 in severance pay."

Harbury is scheduled to speak at Alice's September farewell party and pay tribute to Alice's hospitality and support during her futile demands for documents. So is another prominent victim of Guatemalan military violence, Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun who was kidnapped, tortured and raped in 1989. When Dianna came to Washington to testify about her ordeal, Alice gave her shelter and help.

Alice and Dianna collaborated on a convocation of torture victims who came to Catholic University last month and told harrowing tales of being hung upside-down, having hoods sprayed with insecticides put over their heads and tightened when they failed to give expected answers in interrogation. Alice thinks it is "healing" for torture victims to meet and exchange experiences.

She was appalled at the post-9/11 calls for the use of torture to extract information from terrorist suspects. Some of the advocates were respectable liberals, and Alice invited them to the survivors' convocation. They all declined.

She doesn't mind if you call her radical -- "Jesus was a radical, too." She's hoping now that Americans won't grow indifferent to human rights and civil rights, which are under heavy attack from the Justice Department. She hopes we won't be carried away by the desire for "law and order" that overtook Guatemala.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company