BY HEATHER K. STRACK
MEREDITH M. WILSON
Published in Issue 6.14 of the Dartmouth Free Press
Sister Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, is executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C. She was tortured in Guatemala in 1989 after spending two years there as a Catholic missionary teaching Mayan children. She is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.
Sister Dianna Ortiz came to speak at Dartmouth on Thursday, April 6, about her experiences as a victim of torture in Guatemala in’89. She was there as a missionary with the Ursuline order of nuns, teaching in an indigenous-populated village. After being abducted and interrogated, Sister Ortiz was burned with cigarettes, repeatedly raped, and endured many other horrors, including being forced to aid in the torturing of another prisoner. Although she suffered amnesia and still grapples with the painful memories she has regained, Sister Ortiz has chosen to speak out. The organization she founded, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, provides survivors themselves with a voice in the fight to end torture. Just before her speech at Dartmouth, she spoke with the Free Press about her beliefs and work.
DFP: Could you tell us about what was happening in Guatemala—what you were doing there, and what were the political circumstances that led to your torture?
Sister Dianna Ortiz: I went to Guatemala in’87. At that time, a civilian president had been elected, so I think there was this belief that the civil war in Guatemala had tapered off, and that the human rights violations were no longer as extensive as they had been in the past. And when I went, I think that I had that image in my mind as well. But when I arrived in Guatemala, it was evident there was a great deal of political violence––and a lot of silence, and I couldn’t understand why people were silent and not out there denouncing the atrocities being committed by their government, but now I understand. I [was in] San Miguel, a small town with an indigenous community, a very poor area [and] a lot of violence had occurred in that section of the country.
DFP: What were they trying to accomplish by torturing you, a nun?
SDO: That has been a question that I have asked for years… The people began to talk about some of the injustices that they were facing, and I remember from time to time the military would come to the village and then just pull young kids, young boys, off the streets, then take them to do forced military service. And the parents, the families would come to us and ask for assistance. We [the nuns] were familiar with some of the constitution of Guatemala, and that was a violation in terms of their rights, and so that could be one of the reasons. I was basically teaching children, and teaching them that they had basic rights, and when the children were adults, to recognize that they had basic rights and have the courage to speak out against the injustices. Maybe that’s one of the reasons, I don’t know.
DFP: Anti-torture activists often make the case that torture does not extract accurate and useful information, because victims will usually say anything to make the torture stop. So instead of getting actionable intelligence, the torturers get false confessions, incriminations of innocent people, and fabricated tactical information. Obviously, as a survivor of torture, you have a uniquely informed perspective on this. Does torture produce useful information, or can governments ever gain anything by using torture?
SDO: I don’t believe so. No. Torture doesn’t work… Under torture, a person will admit to anything, disclose anything, even if it’s false. Any information obtained under torture is not reliable.
DFP: Why do you feel there has been a lack of public knowledge about this practice?
SDO: I would not say it’s a lack of knowledge; I would say it’s denial, indifference, fear. Since 9/11, people around the country want to do whatever is necessary to protect our borders, and I’m not saying that we should not defend ourselves—it’s important to protect ourselves—but violence only begets violence, and torture is not the solution to this so-called War on Terror.
DFP: Do you think that the War on Terror can be successfully accomplished without torture?
SDO: I do. I believe in dialogue.
DFP: What is your response to those who argue that the destruction of one life is worth discovering information that will save thousands from a terrorist attack?
SDO: Torture can never be justified. Who is to say this person has a right to live, and this person doesn’t? It’s zero tolerance for torture, under any circumstance.
DFP: What is your position on the interrogations at Guantánamo Bay? In your view, do any of the questioning tactics used there constitute torture?
SDO: It is torture. Period. People may not often see interrogation as a form of torture, but it is a form of torture. I don’t want to go back to my experience, but I think about when I was detained, and my torture began with the interrogation. And the good cop/bad cop image. The use of instruments in my situation — cigarettes were used as part of the interrogation — so when I hear the word interrogation, I immediately identify it with torture. I would say a majority of survivors also identify interrogation with the beginning of their torture.
DFP: Do you feel that it is just as wrong as torture as it is employed elsewhere? Or is it different, lesser, or somehow justifiable?
SDO: It’s similar. For instance, this concept of refining torture—saying that torture really isn’t torture. For instance, right now they talk about waterboarding, shackling, [IRFing], and they say it’s not torture.
DFP: Do you think the U.S. needs to reassess its definition of torture?
SDO: I don’t believe so. There already is a definition. It’s almost like opening a Pandora’s Box—we could say we’d need to redefine every law that exists.
DFP: You’re the director of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), an anti-torture group “founded by and for torture survivors.” Could you tell us about your organization, its mission, and successes?
SDO: Our organization is comprised of torture survivors from around the world. Our main objective is to work towards the abolition of torture. We believe the voices of survivors are [some of the most] important voices in the campaign to end torture. I’m not sure I would call this a success, [but] when TASSC first started, we were a pocket of six people, and [soon] were over 200, and that doesn’t include family members. I say that I question that that really is a success, because I think it really reveals the severity of the problem of torture in today’s world.
DFP: What obstacles does TASSC encounter when working to achieve its goals?
SDO: Well, first of all, I think that sometimes people look at torture survivors as fragile, unstable; and I would not say that we’re not fragile. We are, but there’s also resilience. We are committed to working towards the abolition of torture, not for any political reason. We believe that no one should be subjected to torture. In my dealings with our numbers, I have never heard survivors wish torture on their torturers.
Another obstacle is people often say to us that we’re not being realistic, that it’s impossible to abolish torture. We are of the belief that it is possible. We may not see the abolition of torture in our lifetime, but maybe the next generation. I often think of a friend of mine who was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and he often says to me: when he was a child, and he saw his parents working to bring about change during the Civil Rights movement, that he always questioned if it was going to make a difference. And today, when he looks back, he sees the accomplishments. It’s not perfect, but the idea is to plant a seed. The seed begins to germinate, and hopefully produces good fruit, in this case, the abolition of torture. Maybe it will be just one government to say they will not use torture, but this is a success.
DFP: Obviously your experience drove you to become an energetic anti-torture advocate. How else did it affect your life?
SDO: Torture has tainted every part of my life. Just earlier, the tape recorder [used by the DFP interviewers to record interviews] took me back to Guatemala. Even asking questions, that takes me back. I identify questions with interrogations, so I have to say to myself, Dianna, you’re not there, you’re here.
I’m not the same person I was. I was a teacher. I hope that someday…well, I feel that I am probably more aware of the injustices, the oppression that exists in the world, and I am sad to say that such an experience as torture opened my eyes to the reality. I have more compassion for people who suffer various types of trouble, never comparing pain, accepting people [as] they are.
DFP: How do most survivors of torture cope?
SDO: I don’t think there is a definite one answer for that. Each person deals with his or her torture the best way that he or she can. I think that we share a common language… we sometimes refer to our survival skills as “transitional survival skills,” for instance, to leave the light on at night, drinking coffee, staying away from people and sites where perhaps cigarettes are being used. Some people get involved in human rights. I think that has been the case with a number of our members. Some go out and speak. It takes an emotional toll for folks. There are some survivors who don’t even want to deal with it, and try to live as normal a life as possible. Then there are those who do take their lives.
DFP: How can we better empower other torture survivors to speak out?
SDO: Providing forums, I think, is one way. We do believe that the voices of survivors are vital in this campaign to abolish torture. Empowering survivors means also treating them like they’re human, and not feeling sorry for them. Sometimes there’s a tendency for that. We always say we don’t want sympathy—we want people to wake up. See the world through our eyes, even though I don’t believe that is possible. To see that torture is the plague of the 21st century.
DFP: Why do you speak out?
SDO: I believe that it is my moral obligation to speak about the issue of torture, about what I witnessed and experienced, but I also made a promise to those who were with me in the torture chamber that if I survived I would speak, and tell the world exactly what I had witnessed in the clandestine prison. So I am committed to that promise, every day I renew that commitment. Sometimes I feel like I’m not sure I can do it today.
DFP: Thank you very much, Sister.