First of two parts
The eyes, they change. They change after horrible things have been done to you and you have been made to do horrible things. The eyes retreat behind a glassy facade, ever fearful, ever wary. Ever watchful. Sometimes what they see is not what is before them, but something else. This is, survivors say, exactly the point of torture. You'll never see things quite the same again. Of this you can be sure. It is, Sister Dianna Ortiz will tell you, about the only thing of which you can be sure. If you're lucky enough -- or unlucky enough -- to survive.
Right now, as Ortiz marches through the streets of Washington, heading toward the White House, her eyes are etched with worry. The mood is festive; Ortiz is anything but. Others are dancing, drumming, carrying signs that shout, "Somewhere in Texas, a Village Is Missing Its Idiot." Ortiz walks quietly behind a banner that reads, "The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC): Zero Tolerance for Torture." The letters are drawn in the shape of human bones.
"Look," Ortiz says, pointing to a row of D.C.'s finest, "there are people in uniform now." She walks some more. "Over there, on the roof. Snipers."
"This reminds me of being incarcerated," she says. "The smell of smoke here. The dogs. I see a person in uniform and it's too much. I'm looking around now, and asking myself, 'How many cameras are here?' "
Perhaps she's being paranoid?
"I'd say it's paranoia. And reality.
"I know what my country is capable of."
Ortiz wasn't always like this; experience killed her naivete.
There are those who remember her story: As a young Ursuline nun, she says, she was snatched from a religious retreat in Antigua, Guatemala, and kidnapped by Guatemalan security forces in 1989. It was a time of war, a civil war that would last more than 30 years, a time when boys became soldiers, anyone could be "disappeared," and entire villages were gunned down.
Life in Guatemala was bloody. Very bloody.
Ortiz says she was taken to a place in Guatemala City called the Politecnica, where, for 24 hours, she was tortured, burned more than 100 times with a cigarette, gang-raped, dangled over a pit of rotting corpses, and forced to kill another woman. The rape resulted in a pregnancy that she later terminated.
This is what she will speak of.
There are other things that she will not.
Back then her story was covered exhaustively by major media outlets, from "60 Minutes" to The Washington Post. She was the subject of great scrutiny, and great doubt.
Today, it is a tale that still haunts. Her memoir, "The Blindfold's Eyes," published in the fall, was widely reviewed, and "Watching Left," a play inspired by Ortiz's life, is being performed this month at the Charter Theatre.
She's become used to the spotlight.
Her life is a tangle of contradictions: Of being fragile yet fierce. Of not recognizing her mother's face, but committing the faces of her torturers to memory. Of being tormented by flashbacks, yet choosing to relive the pain so others may not suffer. And as executive director of TASSC, a support network for survivors of state-sanctioned violence that she founded in 1998, Ortiz has, quite literally, made a career out of torture.
She says she'd much rather be a schoolteacher.
Over the years, there's been a great deal of controversy about her story. There are those who did not believe her, and there are those who told her that it is high time she got over being a victim. Those who are familiar with torture say something else. Namely this: There is no getting over such cruelty.
"The torturer knows that once you torture someone, it's something that you're leaving with them for the rest of their lives," says Meredith Larson, an American human rights observer who in 1989 was also a victim of political violence in Guatemala.
"It's a permanent torture chamber. Dianna lives daily with the experience of torture. You can always see it in her eyes. And yet she is one of the strongest people I know."
Maybe, but these days Ortiz also finds herself troubled by fear. The nightmares are back.
It is the times in which we live, she says: the war in Iraq with its POWs, the war on terror, and the charges that Americans have mistreated prisoners at Guantanamo.
"I don't believe in war, I don't believe in any form of violence," Ortiz says. "I see it as a moral responsibility to let people know what happens when there's war.
"War, even the threat of war, breeds torture."
And her eyes start to get that faraway look in them.
Telling the Tale
The mood is hushed, reverential even. A candle rests on the dais. Ortiz stands, nearly hidden behind the lectern, a waif of a woman, years younger than her "44 or 45" years. She is a nun with a fondness for fashion.
Her hair is cropped in layers, the color a burgundy brown, the remnants of a misfired perm. Her nails are clipped short and painted red; a hint of lipstick shades narrow lips. Her voice is stilted. She drags out her words, taking long pauses. At times, it is excruciating to listen to her story.
In the telling of her tale, there is a sense of timing, of lines that have been rehearsed, of anecdotes that have been told again and again.
"November 2, 1989, is the day that I died. The day the God that I knew died."
Then Ortiz opens her book, "The Blindfold's Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth," and reads from it.
In the middle of the room is a cot and something or someone is lying under a blood-stained sheet. . . . I steel myself . . . take a corner of the sheet and slowly pull it back.
A woman . . . Her breasts have been cut and maggots are crawling in them. . . .
The Policeman, the Guate-Man and Jose burst into the room. Jose is holding a video camera. "So you've met," says the Policeman. . . .
I notice that he's holding a machete. He walks over to me, holds the machete out. And thinking the time has finally come, at last they're going to kill me or let me kill myself, I take it. Then he gets behind me, traps my body under his, and forces me to stab the Woman, again and again. . . .
Afterward, she takes no questions. She sits down, in tears, her small body disappearing behind the lectern. The silence stretches on, and on, and on. Soft sobbing seeps into the stillness. Some students cover their eyes. Others stare at the floor.
24 Hours of Hell
She was praying in a convent garden, sitting alone with her Bible and her Walkman, when the men came for her.
In her dreams, they still come for her.
In 1989, Guatemala's indigenous leftist guerrillas were locked in battle against a corrupt government whose military had been largely trained and funded by the United States. Anyone working with the Indian poor (the country is 70 percent Maya, and 2 percent of the population, mostly mixed-race ladinos and foreigners, owns 80 percent of the land) was viewed as subversive. That meant that the Catholic Church, with its missionary nuns and priests, was a target.
It didn't matter that Ortiz, a Chicana from New Mexico with a shaky grasp of Spanish, wasn't particularly political. Didn't matter that she was just a grade-school teacher.
She, too, was a target. There were death threats -- "Eliminate Dianna . . ." -- and a physical confrontation on the street (she would later identify the man on the street as one of her torturers). Other nuns urged her to leave the country. And she did for a few weeks, only to return. She was needed in Guatemala. It's a decision she still questions.
"It was very tense," recalls Sister Mimi Ballard, one of the more outspoken nuns who worked with Ortiz in Guatemala. "There had been lots of people being disappeared, lots of death squad activity. I tried to get her to go. I tried very hard to get her to go."
On the day she was taken, Ortiz says she was tossed into a bus, then a police car, and driven about 45 miles to Guatemala City. Her three torturers, whom she identifies as "The Guate-Man," "The Policeman" and "Jose," would hold her for only 24 hours. Others have been held for much longer. Weeks. Years. But it only takes a minute for your life to change.
They've taken my sweat shirt off and are explaining the rules. . . . They ask me my name, age, and place of residence. The anticipation is worse than the burns -- wondering if this answer is good enough. But for every answer I give, they burn me. Every time I am silent they burn me. They ask me the same questions again and again. My throat becomes raw from screaming.
Then, suddenly, as quickly as she had been whisked away, it was over. Ortiz was saved by a man she believes was American, a man she believes was the torturers' boss.
It was that man, known as "Alejandro," she says, who discovered her curled up on the floor and blindfolded. It was he, she says, who shouted at the men in unaccented American English. It is his voice she remembers hearing later in Spanish, yelling, "You idiots! Leave her alone. She's a North American, and it's all over the news. . . ."
He was all apologies as he escorted her to a gray jeep, all reassurances as he told her that he would take her to his friend in the U.S. Embassy. She was not reassured. There was something about him that scared her. "He is taking me to kill me," she thought.
She leapt from the jeep. And ran. A woman she met on the street helped her hide. She promised not to identify her, and she never did.
Ortiz's story of her savior would later become the catalyst for an explosive political controversy, one that would call her credibility -- and her sanity -- into question.
The Guatemalan government's defense minister, Hector Gramajo, called Ortiz's kidnapping a hoax. Rumors were spread that she had sustained her burns as part of a sado-masochistic "lesbian love tryst."
Thomas Stroock, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala at the time, who originally came to her aid, questioned the timing of the kidnapping. Ortiz was taken a week before Congress would debate an aid package to Guatemala.
The Justice Department investigated her case, then dropped it for lack of evidence. (Ortiz stopped participating in the investigation because, she says, she felt victimized by intrusive questioning.)
She sued the Guatemalan government, and for years fought with her own. At one point, in frustration and anger, she went on a six-week hunger strike outside the White House to pressure the Clinton administration to release material related to her case and those of others who were victims of political violence in Guatemala. Some of those documents were released in 1996, though much of the information had been blacked out.
"Had I known then what I'd go through, I'm not sure I would have pursued justice," she says now. "The whole experience shattered my trust in God and people."
There has been some satisfaction, though: A U.S. federal judge found Gramajo guilty of "an indiscriminate terror campaign against civilians," and ordered him to pay Ortiz and eight Guatemalans $47.5 million. They have yet to collect.
And in 1998, the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a report saying that Ortiz was a credible witness and that "her consistent statements support finding that she was kidnapped and . . . tortured."
Stroock, now living in Wyoming, did not return calls seeking comment. And the Justice Department says only that the Ortiz case remains open.
"The case was extensively investigated," a spokesman said. "We do remain concerned that there has yet to be a full and final accounting of this case by the Guatemalan government.
But by our own extensive efforts, we've never been able to locate [Alejandro] or find U.S. government connection to the perpetrator in this case."
Even today, her story inspires debate. After her book was reviewed on Salon.com last winter, a reader wrote, "Twenty-four hours of torture by the Guatemalan D-2 is probably more than most people could survive -- physically or emotionally. Unfortunately, it's [expletive]. . . . The truth of how Dianna wound up wandering around Zona 1 in Guatemala City . . . is only known by Dianna."
A Struggle With Faith
She chases memory. Other times, memory chases her. The past, she says, is a war within her.
"I don't think she actually knew who she was for a very long time," recalls her nephew Abel Murietta, speaking of the days shortly after Ortiz arrived home to New Mexico fresh from her ordeal, dazed and covered in cigarette burns. "We were complete strangers to her. She was fearful of the human race."
Her family are no longer strangers, but memory is elusive.
She has spent time in a psychiatric hospital seeking solace from flashbacks. She has struggled with guilt: guilt for her abortion, guilt over The Woman she was forced to kill, guilt for surviving.
And she has struggled with faith. Ortiz lost hers. She considered leaving her order: She was a nun who'd had an abortion, which she'd kept a secret for years until she revealed it in an emotional news conference.
It has taken Ortiz years to reconstruct faith in a God that she'd been convinced had let her down. Slowly, she began working with other torture survivors, remembering a pledge she'd made to herself, to The Woman. If she lived, she would fight torture.
She's traveled the world telling her story. And it is in those travels that her faith has come back to her, a faith that has expanded to include a respect for other religious traditions. She's remained a part of the Ursuline Community, and with the counseling of the mother superior, she has come to see her human rights work as part of the Ursuline ministry. She finds inspiration in the biblical tale of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Like the apostle Philip, she hopes to have enough faith to see it multiply to other survivors.
In her book, she thanks "God for always being there, even when I doubted Her presence."
Eventually she moved to Washington and worked with the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. She formed TASSC, an advocacy network of torture survivors. The group's mission: to fight torture; to help survivors and their families get asylum in the United States; to help them with counseling, doctor's visits, finding housing. The group also lobbies to influence domestic and international policy and monitors human rights violations around the world.
"We never know, we might be riding in the same bus with a torture survivor," Ortiz says. "Ordinary people in our midst who have been subjected to torture.
"And there are torturers in our midst."
A Need to Set Limits
To interview Ortiz is to feel, at times, manipulated by her. There are things that she will not discuss. "Read the book," she will say. "Scratch that," she will say. "I can't go there." Her eyes frequently well up. Her hands shake.
"What [you] may perceive as a desire to control is generated by the [torture survivor's] desire to have control over many aspects of their life," says Larson, "because they were placed in a situation where they had no control over their experience. . . . The mere asking of questions can cause someone to relive the torture and the trauma. It's better for her to set limits than to break down in an interview."
And so Ortiz sets limits in interviews and in her life. No violent movies. If there's blood in the movie, she won't see it. No questions at promotional appearances for her books. She has to, she says, protect herself from people who want to know, for example, How many times were you raped? May I see your burns?
"For her, speaking tends to be very traumatic," Larson says. "After an event, she's in a totally different world. I feel bad, I want to give her a hug. But I know her well enough to know that rather than experiencing the touch of a close friend, she may experience the touch of a torturer."
Safe is a mantra with Ortiz, as in "stay safe," when she signs off in her e-mails. There are few places where she does feel safe. Like her parents' home in New Mexico, where somehow she finds the courage to turn out the lights when she sleeps. Like her office, a cinder block series of rooms in a building owned by the Capuchin Friars near Catholic University, fragrant, candle-lit rooms humming with world-beat tunes on the stereo.
Peace is to be found there, as it is at home, where she lives with 17 others in two row houses in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
Outside, children play in a Sunday night dusk. Inside, a big-eyed little girl named Maura runs around, showing a visitor pictures of wounded children in Iraq, a souvenir of her missionary father's visit there. Religious pictures dot the walls; Spanish and English sprinkle the conversations. Priests and nuns live side by side with lay people, some of them political refugees from around the world.
Simple living is the credo here: The meals are vegetarian, everyone takes turns cooking (Ortiz's is a favorite), clothes are dried on a clothesline.
Here, the talk is soft. Ortiz smiles and jokes, gently touches the arm of a woman who recounts her story of why she came to the United States.
But first, she looks at Ortiz for reassurance. Ortiz nods at her.
"Soy una sobreviviente de tortura," the woman says.
"I am a survivor of torture."
Ortiz rubs her arm. Smiles a little. And her eyes look, for a moment at least, a little less haunted.
Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: TASSC at work.