16/07/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

DIANNA ORTIZ, aged 62

THE UNFORGIVEN

Born in Colorado Springs as one of eight children, she grew up in Grants, New Mexico. Her father was a uranium miner and her mother, Alby, was a homemaker. Dianna was a very spiritual child.

She refused to wear a seatbelt in the family car, saying Jesus would save her if anything went wrong.

She entered an Ursuline Convent as a novitiate, at Mount Saint Joseph, Maple Mount, Kentucky. There, she was trained as both teacher and nun. Dianna began her working career teaching kindergarten in Kentucky where she taught in two schools. “The children loved her, and she loved them.”

Dianna was a small woman, just 5 feet 3 inches tall and she weighed under 100 pounds.

Dianna – the nonviolent witness (courtesy Pax Christi)

Growing up in New Mexico, she had a childlike excitement about snow.

In 1987, Dianna was sent to Guatemala, as a missionary, to teach native Mayan children.

The country was in the middle of a vicious, decades-long, civil war between US-backed government forces and Marxist rebels. Over 200,000 people had been killed in this conflict. It was known as ‘The Dirty War’.

Dianna was not frightened as she was sent to the western highlands, an area where the war had hardly impacted. She taught in a Mayan primary school, helping children to read and write and learn the bible. She said the killings and the violence did not touch her world.

Her aim was, “To teach young indigenous children to read and write, in Spanish and also in their native language and to understand the bible in their culture.”

Then, Dianna started to receive threatening letters, ordering her to leave Guatemala. A total stranger bumped into her in the street, called her by her name, and told her to get out of the country. “I didn’t think the threats were something that I should have taken seriously because I was a United States citizen – and I assumed that my citizenship would protect me. But what I learned was that was not the case.”

Dianna was kidnapped from a retreat house garden in Antigua, Guatemala, on the 2nd November 1989 and driven to a detention centre in Guatemala City. Initially, she thought her kidnappers were guerillas, but when she saw the size of the detention centre and the sheer amount of prisoners, she realised it was operated by government forces.

Dianna was accused of working with the indigenous community (which was true). Her inquisitors demanded that she hand over the names of subversives. She knew none.

She was then tortured (110 cigarette burns on her body), raped by three men, hung over a pit of rats by her wrists, shared a cell with decapitated bodies and finally forced at gunpoint to execute another prisoner. Dianna was told this last act had been photographed and videoed and if she ever complained, the pictures and tape would be used to blackmail her.

All this was overseen by a fourth man who said he was called Alejandro. He spoke Spanish, but she knew he was American.

Unexpectedly, after24-hours, Alejandro ordered the torture to stop. “Idiots – She’s North American. Let her alone.”

Dianna did not realise that her capture had made headlines around the world.

Alejandro apologised to her and said it was a case of mistaken identity. He told her to forget what had happened – or else!

Dianna was bundled into a grey jeep and driven off . She was told she was being taken to ‘a friend’ in the American embassy but she assumed it was to a place of execution.

US embassy in Guatemala (courtesy Dezeen)

The car stopped at a red light, so Dianna opened the door, jumped out and fled. She hid in a store because she could hear the men searching for her. She stayed there for the next two days.

Eventually, Dianna finally risked coming out. She went to a church and begged for help.

She was flown back to the USA to receive intense medical treatment. She suffered  severe memory loss. She couldn’t recognise her own family or her fellow sisters from the Ursuline convent. This deeply upset them.

A trauma doctor counselled them. “You’ve got to realise the torturers hurt more than Dianna. They hurt your community too. You’re going to have to walk this road with her.”

It also turned out she was pregnant. Dianna insisted on an abortion – “I had no choice. If I had to grow within me what the torturers left me, I would have died.”

For a while, Dianna rejected contact with all her friends and family. Her father died whilst she was in this period of isolation (something she deeply regretted later on). Her counselling went on for years.

In 1996, Dianna suddenly sprung to life again. She started a hunger strike (which lasted a week) in Lafayette Square, Washington DC, close to the White House. “I wanted to know why I was targeted, and why a US citizen had the authority to give orders to my torturers – and why he had access to a clandestine prison.”  She claimed that the US Embassy in Guatemala were complicit.

State officials said her claims were nonsense, but Dianna was not going to give up her fight.

She moved to live in Washington and became a prominent advocate of victims of state-sanctioned violence.

Dianna then filed a ‘Freedom of Information’ action to get secret files from US Government agencies. The Justice Department started an investigation but quickly abandoned it, claiming that people still in captivity could be prejudiced by such an investigation.

Nevertheless, she kept on going and eventually gained evidence that the CIA (Central Intelligency Agency) had been involved in murder, kidnapping, rape and torture. It led to serious questions about how the Americans gained any information in foreign countries.

The pressure Dianna put on the government eventually led to increased numbers of classified documents being released (about 2,000 of them). The State Department finally admitted, “There was no reason not to believe her.”

Dianna then sued the former Guatemalan Defense Minister, Hector Gramajo, who was living in the USA, having fled his homeland, being wanted for human rights violations. An American court concluded she was one victim of an ‘indiscriminate campaign of terror’ against thousands of citizens. It accused Gramajo of being responsible for thousands of deaths.

Gramajo claimed Dianna was a lesbian and she had invented the kidnapping story to hide a secret tryst.

In court, a judge awarded Dianna and nine other victims, $47.5 million (her share was approximately  $5million).

Gramajo paid them nothing. He fled back to Guatemala, where he lived in luxury on his avocado ranch. (He died there, with his son, in 2004, after being attacked by a swarm of bees.)

The civil war in Guatemala had finished in 1996, peace being brokered by the United Nations. Dianna was given credit for her contribution to the end of the conflict.

However, she never managed full resolution on her own case. The US Government still doubted the veracity of her story and the US Ambassador to Guatemala, Thomas F. Stroock, a Wyoming businessman, questioned her motives and timing.

He said, “For a person who knew little Spanish and did not know the capital well, had not slept for 24 hours, had suffered an intense torture session including 50 to 70 (sic) cigarette burns and in deep shock rendering her incapable of talking, Sister Dianna seemed to have little difficulty escaping by jumping out of a moving car, running at high speed and asking Guatemalans for protection…and then placing telephone calls to a retreat in Antigua she had only visited once.”

CIA documents had labelled her as “a left-wing propagandist” also accusing her of inventing the story as cover for a sado-masochistic lesbian affair.

She never managed to uncover who Alejandro was, although she remained convinced he was a CIA agent.

Simultaneously, an investigation by the Organisation of American States, concluded every word she had said was true – and it was the CIA and American government who were lying.

It also charged the Guatemalan government with, “engaging in repeated and unwarranted attacks on her honour and reputation.”

The Organisation of American States also noted, “All the cards were stacked against her. There was absolutely no way she could get justice in Guatemala.”

Dianna (courtesy Owensboro Times)

Dianna then worked for the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission and started the ‘Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Group’, based in Washington DC, with the aim of rebuilding lives.

In her autobiography, ‘The Blindfold’s Eyes – My Journey from Torture to Truth’, she said she could never forgive. “I leave that in God’s hands. The fact that I’m a Catholic nun and I’m not able to forgive, makes me feel all the more guilty. I’m not sure what it means to forgive.”

The Blindfold’s Eyes (courtesy Orbis Books)

In 1999, President Bill Clinton apologised to Guatemalans for the USA’s involvement in ‘the Dirty War’ – an admission of American guilt.

President Bill Clinton (courtesy Wikipedia)

Dianna continued to work for justice and to help victims of torture – but there were never any prosecutions in her own case.

In 2010, she became Deputy Director of Pax Christi USA, a catholic organization. She left them in 2014 to work with ‘Education for Justice’.

Pax Christi UASA AC(courtesy Stuart Centre)

Dianna went back to her old role with Pax Christi in 2020.

Throughout this period, she would give lectures, but they always led to flashbacks, and she would be ill for a while afterwards. She was encouraged to stop lecturing but refused, saying it was her duty to continue.

She caught Covid during the pandemic and was ill for a few weeks. When she finally tested negative, extreme tiredness continued.

Her friends eventually persuaded Dianna to go to hospital for a check-up. There, a tumour was discovered and she was given two months to live.

Just two months later, as predicted, Dianna died in a hospice, with her mother and sisters by her side.

One of her fellow nuns said, “She looked so fragile, I’d tease her…But it was like she had a steel rod in her spine.”

The Mother Superior of her Ursuline convent said, “Dianna suffered so much in her life but continually tried to help others who were suffering. We pray for her, our community and her family.”

RIP – Rejecting Intelligence Proclamations

 

 

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