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Seeking truth, trust after torture

by Dianna Ortiz
Orbis Books, 480 pages, $25

Reviewed by GARY MacEOIN

Thirteen years ago, Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz was abducted and brutally tortured while working as a missionary among the K’anjobal-speaking Mayans of San Miguel, Guatemala. Her unremitting fight to identify the torturers and to focus a spotlight on torture practiced as an instrument of policy by the Guatemalan government is already widely known through her appearances on such shows as “Nightline,” “The Today Show” and “60 Minutes,” and interviews in leading newspapers in many countries. Now she has brought the entire sordid story together in a book that fascinates and troubles.

What is most fascinating is the detailed account of the long-term effects of torture on the victim: the sleepless nights, the flashbacks triggered by words or situations, the vomiting and, above all, the inability to trust even one’s intimate friends, the amnesia about all that had occurred before in one’s life.

“The only vivid memories,” she writes, “are those of being burned, being raped, being tortured.” A doctor who examined her back found 111 second-degree cigarette burns.

Part of the torture was a gang rape by three torturers, which resulted in a pregnancy. Horrified, she arranged an abortion, only to add to her anguish when she reflected on what she had done and decided she had committed an unforgivable sin. She would not even open her Bible, fearing she would find words of judgment and reproach. “I would hear God -- a God I believed in just enough to fear -- telling me I was evil.”

Torture is calculated to destroy trust and the ability to communicate. Even now, after years of professional rehabilitation, Ortiz remains ambivalent about her level of trust. “As I improve, I have faith, hope and trust again, on my good days. But even on my good days, the smell of cigarette smoke reminds me of the burns the torturers inflicted on me. The sight of a man in uniform reminds me of the Policeman [one of the torturers]. I jump if someone runs up behind me, and if someone stands too close or stares at me, I back away. I sleep with the light on. I ask people not to smoke, not to stare, not to talk about torture tactics in front of me, and not to invite me to movies that are violent. …

“On my bad days, I still say I should have died back in that prison, before I had to be used to inflict pain, because I had to make a choice about another human being’s life or death. I still wish I had died. … But no one ever fully recovers -- not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures. Every time he tortures, the torturer reinforces the idea that we cannot trust one another, and that we cannot trust the world we live in.”

Ortiz has a mission, and this book is an expression of it. She wants to create an awareness of the pervasiveness of torture in today’s world and the widespread acceptance of it as inevitable, even useful. “As I write this, attorneys and journalists are advocating the legalization of torture in the United States.” According to Amnesty International’s statistics for 2001, more than 150 governments engage in torture or ill-treatment, up from 114 just two years earlier.

Is the United States one of these? At least, Ortiz claims, it encourages its allies to use torture, and it cooperates actively with their efforts to silence those who protest. “The U.S. government funded, trained and equipped the Guatemalan army’s death squads -- my torturers themselves. The United States was the Guatemalan army’s partner in a covert war against a small opposition force -- a war the United Nations would later declare genocidal.”

This is a serious charge, but the evidence she offers to support it is overwhelming. It provides moral certainty, the kind of certainty that allows a jury to free or condemn the defendant in a court of law.

The most telling evidence comes from a large number of documents released to her under the Freedom of Information Act. U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Thomas Stroock and other officials spread rumors calculated to discredit her statements. A jealous lesbian lover might have caused her injuries. A love affair with a seminarian might have produced the fetus she aborted. There are inconsistencies in her story -- first she says the room where she was tortured has a high ceiling, then that it had a low ceiling. Was she supposed to be calculating the height of the ceiling while she was being tortured?

From all the trickery and lies to which these officials resorted to confuse Ortiz and persuade her friends and the public that she herself had caused her problems, it seems clear that our government was hiding something. Was Alejandro, the American who gave orders to the torturers, an agent? What was our government hiding?

These questions remain unanswered. And Ortiz continues her search. “I guess if I were entirely logical, I would despair. But the lesson of my torture didn’t stick; I was supposed to have learned despair. But I can’t help hoping. I have faith in the unexpected, the miraculous, the power of people working together and of God working through us.”

Gary MacEoin lives in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002