Literary Art from Agni


Pieces of Bone

           Dianna Ortiz rested in front of her makeshift tent of umbrellas covered with plastic sheets in Lafayette Park facing the White House. Leaning against a patchwork pillow, she shifted from side to side as she watched rollerbladers race along Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the third week of her twenty-hour-a-day silent vigil and her bones, she said, hurt from sitting. She was a newcomer among the veterans who slept in the park. Delicate and beautiful, she looked a decade younger than her thirty-seven years. Still, dark circles lined her eyes and her chin-length auburn hair had become brittle from the sun. She had lost so much weight during the vigil that she had to pin her long black dress to keep it from falling off her shoulders.
           Every evening after work I stopped by the park, where a half-dozen supporters were handing out leaflets and gathering by the flowers and candles that decorated her encampment like an altar. I had an excuse for returning night after night. I am a reporter who has written about North American nuns in Guatemala, and she is a North American nun who went to Guatemala to teach Mayan children, only to become a casualty of a three-decade-old civil war. Now, seven years later, she was sitting in front of the White House to pressure the United States government to release information about her case.
           Most evenings we exchanged nods, but little else. Silence was her only respite from the constant attention of visitors and tourists who wandered by her encampment. So I was surprised one night when she motioned to me to sit beside her.
           "Last night I talked to a reporter," she said, "and I'm afraid he thought I was crazy."
           It wasn't the first time I had heard her express such fears in the year since I began following her story. Even questions from a reporter or government official could trigger flashbacks of her interrogation by assailants who she says burned her one-hundred-eleven times with cigarettes.
           Her assailants, she'd told me earlier, had assured her that no one would believe her if she talked about her abduction. She was beginning to think they were right.
           The truth was that many people, government officials among them, did doubt her story, or at least the more fantastic details of her torture and suggestions of U.S. complicity in her abduction. If she was telling the truth, she was a rare North American survivor of extreme torture who demanded attention. If she wasn't, she deserved some compassion. Either way I wanted to find out.

           We first met in March of 1995, when I interviewed her at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C., where she had worked for less than a year. She wore sneakers and a flowing blue and white polka-dotted dress that set off her olive skin. The only hint of her vocation was a small wooden cross hanging on a string next to a shell-like fragment. It was a piece of bone given to her by a Mayan woman whose son had been killed, she told me. Pieces of bone were his only remains.
           In time I would see a livelier, almost girlish Dianna, who on good days laughed easily and indulged in light banter, but on this day she looked sad and exhausted, like a woman who had successfully avoided the terrors of sleep.
           "I had a number of thoughts," she said as we sat down to talk. "What could I say to you that would open people's eyes up to what's really happening in Guatemala, and not focus so much on me?" She spoke slowly and deliberately as if to steady herself. "I have a real hard time when the focus is on the North American cases. We're just the tip of the iceberg." Still, she agreed to begin with her story, and I asked why she had chosen religious life.
           "I don't know," she said. Since her abduction in November of 1989, she told me, she had been unable to remember any events that had taken place earlier. Memory loss, I later learned, is common in survivors of severe trauma. She said she could recount in detail her ab-duction, but she had no recollection of the family and friends she knew prior to November 2, 1989.
           "When I was reunited with my family, I had no idea who they were," she said. She was equally disoriented days later when she was taken to the Motherhouse of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph in Maple Mount, Kentucky.
           "I didn't recognize names and faces. I had no idea what I was doing there. I just didn't know who to trust."
           I stared at her too long, imagining her looking blankly at the unfamiliar faces of nuns who called her sister.
           "I know I'm not the woman I used to be," she said, as if an apology were in order.
           She was not the woman she used to be, and she had no idea who that woman was.

           We would spend much of our time together in silence, whether sitting in the park or her room at the Assisi Community, a group of mostly Catholic men and women with whom she had lived since taking a leave of absence from the Ursuline Sisters. She didn't want to talk about the abduction much for fear of triggering flashbacks, and we couldn't talk about a past she didn't remember.
           Dianna relied on friends and family to tell her about her life before November 2, 1989, and I relied on them as well. Some friends were like mourners who grieved a relationship only they could remember. And even some people who had gone on to form new relationships with Dianna since her return to the United States spoke with sadness of an earlier, more intimate bond.
           She was the middle of eight children of Ambrosia and Pilar Ortiz,a homemaker and uranium miner in Grants, New Mexico. At six, Dianna announced she wanted to become a nun, and she remained committed throughout public high school. It was a rare vocation for a teenager in the mid-seventies. Few women were entering religious orders, and sisters were leaving their communities in droves. Still, Dianna was certain she was called to a life of service, and in her late teens she moved to Maple Mount, Kentucky to join the Ursulines of Mount St. Joseph.
           For a decade she taught kindergarten in Kentucky before deciding that she felt called to follow Jesus' example and work with the poor. Since the late 1960s, progressive nuns had been in the forefront of movements for social justice, and many who had once served the poor now lived among them. Dianna knew sisters who lived on mission in developing countries, some of whom had been radicalized by their work under repressive regimes. And she, too, wanted to become a missionary.
           In September 1987, she left for a remote Mayan village in the Guatemalan highlands. San Miguel Acatan had been hard-hit during the country's civil war. The Guatemalan Army had killed more than one-hundred-fifty thousand in an attempt to "cleanse" the rural areas of people they suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas and to instill fear in the community. "Every family in San Miguel had people who had been tortured, disappeared or killed," said Ursuline Sister Mary Elizabeth (Mimi) Ballard, who had arrived a year earlier. "No family was untouched."
           Still, Dianna adjusted easily to missionary life. The poverty in San Miguel was startling, and she had a tough time learning the indigenous Kanjobal language. But her sisters remember Dianna's delight when local women gave her hand-woven blouses and strung ribbon through her long brown hair. It was what nuns call the honeymoon of mission life, when newly arrived missionaries are overjoyed by the warmth of the local people and the simplicity of their lives, before fully realizing the long-term effects of scarcity and war.
           She lived in an abandoned school-turned-convent with Ballard and two Franciscan sisters, Darleen Chmielewski and Maureen Leach. The older sisters led Bible study groups for adults; Dianna taught reading, art, and Bible stories to the children. "On Saturday, children of all ages would come in droves," recalls Ursuline Sister Luisa Bickett, who visited San Miguel from Kentucky. "She was like a Pied Piper the kids were always around. She was very happy. We teased Dianna that Guat-emala was her first love."
           Although the sisters avoided activities that could be construed as political, in September of 1988 the local bishop told them that he had received a letter accusing the sisters of working with the guerrillas. Four months later the sisters received a letter addressed to Madre Dianna: "Be careful. People want to hurt you." Two similar ones followed. Ballard suspected that the intent was to frighten church people into abandoning their work with the poor, or perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity, but no one was sure why Dianna was targeted when she returned to San Miguel. The local priest assured the sisters the letters were idle threats and that the military left foreigners alone. But when Dianna went to Guatemala City to study Spanish, a man grabbed her on the street. "He said, 'We know who you are,'" Dianna told the sisters. "And he told me to leave the country."
           Shaken, she flew to the Ursuline motherhouse in Maple Mount, Kentucky. Some sisters hoped that she would stay in the United States, but Dianna was determined to return to San Miguel. "She had a great love for the Guatemalans," says Bickett, "just a great love. This was a call, and she couldn't turn her back on the call."
           Upon her return to San Miguel, she received two more letters, more ominous in tone: "Eliminate Dianna, assassinate, decapitate, rape," the first one said. "The army knows you are here. Leave the country," the second warned. But Dianna insisted on staying. In her journal she asked God to immerse her more fully into the lives of the Guatemalan people.

           The Plaza of Peace looked like the perfect respite from the tension in San Miguel. On the east side of the plaza was Posada de Belan, a former monastery turned retreat center surrounded by lush gardens and vine-covered stone arches and fountains. In late October of 1989, Dianna and Sister Darleen Chmielewski arrived for a rest.
           According to Dianna's accounts, on the morning of November 2, two men abducted her from an enclosed garden at the retreat center and forced her to board a bus for a nearby town. There they took an unmarked police car driven by a uniformed policeman to the Antigua Escuela Politacnica, an old military academy in Guatemala City. In a dark room, the men questioned her, burning her with cigarettes however she answered. They asked her to identify "subversives" in photographs, claiming she was among them. When she protested, her assailants knocked her to the ground, poured wine over her body, and took turns raping her.
           What happened next, she acknowledges, has been toughest for people to believe. Her assailants, she says, took her outside and lowered her into a pit filled with rats, decomposing bodies, and half-dead prisoners, their limbs flailing in pain. She passed out and awoke in a room where a female prisoner lay bruised and bloodied on a cot. An assailant then handed Dianna what she thought was a small machete or knife and, placing his hands on hers, forced her to thrust it into the other woman's chest. The men were about to begin raping her again when a tall, fair-skinned man, whom she had heard them refer to earlier as Alejandro, or "the boss," arrived. He ordered them to stop, saying that she was a North American nun and her disappearance had become public. He told her in unaccented English that the abduction had been a mistake and they had confused her with guerrilla leader Veronica Ortiz Hernandez. And he said he would take her to a friend at the nearby American embassy, who would help her leave the country.
           When his jeep stopped in traffic, however, she opened the door and fled.

           From a local travel agency, she called Sister Chmielewski.
           "Dianna was in a state of shock," recalled Chmielewski, when she saw her on the morning of November third. "She was a shell of a woman. Her eyes were blank. I presumed she had been tortured."
           They went to the home of the Maryknoll missionaries, and then to the Guatemala City residence of the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican representative who had offered Ortiz asylum.
           When they arrived, says Chmielewski, "Dianna wanted to take a bath. I helped her wash her back and saw all the cigarette burns. I had seen pictures of people who had been tortured, but this was someone close to me, whom I had been living with.
           "While we were sitting in her bedroom, someone came in and said the police wanted to talk to Dianna. She said, 'No, they're the ones that did this to me.'" She was also afraid to speak to the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, who came to see her, because Alejandro had claimed to have friends at the embassy.
           That night, says Chmielewski, Dianna took many baths. "I thought she had been raped, but she didn't say it. I don't think either of us slept. She just cried and took baths."
           And within forty-eight hours she left the country.
           Sister JoAnn Persch still remembers "the incredible fear in Dianna's eyes" when she arrived in Chicago to live at the Su Casa Catholic Worker House for survivors of torture several months later. "I thought to my-self, 'How are we going to handle this?' She just seemed so fragile and traumatized." Like many survivors, she sat up all night with the lights on and played music to avoid falling asleep. "When she did fall asleep," Persch says, "she'd awaken with fists bruised from pounding the walls."

           Dianna took a leave of absence from her religious order to find out if she was "worthy" to be a nun. On bad days, she used words like "contaminated" to describe herself, and she warned people against touching her, lest the badness rub off. Often she would have to leave in the middle of a conversation and retreat to her room.
           As a nun, she might have found solace in the prayers that once brought her comfort. But she had no memory of the words or what they had meant to her. She had prayed to God to know the Guatemalans, and now she was a nun who didn't know God.

           The former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Thomas Stroock, remembers seeing Dianna briefly at the Papal Nuncio's residence within twelve hours of her arrival. Her face, he says, was "terribly discolored. She was shaking like a leaf. She had been through some sort of traumatic experience." At the time, he says, Dianna was the same age as his youngest daughter. So naturally he felt for her and her family.
           He offered her housing at the embassy and the services of an em-bassy doctor. She refused both, choosing a physician at the Papal Nuncio's residence instead, just as she refused to talk to him and to the police about her ordeal. Her reticence surprised him, even made him suspicious. "Normally," he told me, "when someone goes through a traumatic experience, they come up to the ambassador and grab him by the lapels and say, 'I'm an American and you're the ambassador, and you're supposed to protect me.'" But at the time, Stroock had little experience in such matters. A Wyoming oil executive and classmate of President Bush from Yale, he had only recently arrived at his post, and he faced considerable challenges shared by more experienced ambassadors in countries with histories of human rights violations: how to get along with the host government without turning a blind eye to torture and other abuses. Stroock, recently declassified State Department documents reveal, was eager to work well with the Guatemalan government and to ensure the continuation of U.S. aid to that country. Then came Sister Dianna Ortiz.
           Soon after Dianna's abduction, the documents show, the ambassador began questioning "the motives and timing behind [her] story." A debate on U.S. aid to Guatemala was scheduled in Congress-aid the Bush Administration strongly supported-and in a November 1989 cable to Secretary of State James Baker, the ambassador suggested that the abduction could have been "a hoax" to pressure the U.S. to cut off funding.
           Guatemalan officials went further. Defense minister Hector Gramajo said that Dianna had invented the story to cover up her involvement in a violent "lesbian tryst," according to the 1996 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. ABC News tracked the lesbian rumor to U.S. Embassy Human Rights Officer W. Lewis Amselem, who vehemently denied the charge.
           The Reverend Joseph Nangle of the Assisi Community told me he heard Amselem talking about lesbian nuns at the embassy in April 1990. "I'll never forget it. He leans back in his chair and says, 'I'm tired of these lesbian nuns coming into this country.'" The human rights officer would not speak to me on-the-record about the accusations or his theories about the Ortiz case. A reporter for a major newspaper, however, told me that Amselem had claimed off-the-record that Ortiz had been duped by nuns and priests who wanted to harm the U.S. government and end U.S. aid to Guatemala. Amselem, the reporter said, had no doubt they would go to great lengths to do so, even burning one of their own.
           By the time I approached Darleen Chmielewski, she had already gotten wind of the accusations. Nuns and priests might be guilty of a lot of things, she said, but torture wasn't one of them.
           Stroock defended his human rights officer against charges of rumor mongering. He was more concerned with Ortiz's public statements suggesting the possibility of a U.S. embassy connection to her abduction. On January 29, 1990 he sent a letter expressing his outrage to Ortiz's lawyer, who was pressing the Guatemalan and U.S. governments to investigate her case. "This charge constitutes a scurrilous smear on the good names of the fine Americans who serve their country here," Stroock wrote. "It is an offense against the eighth (sic) commandment, a sin. This slander raises the most serious questions about the credibility, sincerity, and motives of those who conceived and are attempting to spread it."
           Stroock also questioned Ortiz's burns, among the most critical evidence of her torture. In his edit of a working draft of the State De-partment's 1990 Human Rights Report, Stroock called for deleting from a section on Ortiz the sentence: "And a physician confirmed she had been burned." ("We don't know if that is true," the ambassador wrote. "Her lawyers say it is, but we have no independent confirmation.") Yet, in an April 1992 cable, Stroock stated that embassy officials "believe the Guatemalan dermatologist [Dr. David Alcare] who examined and treated her back wounds on the night of her release."
           The ambassador told me that he called for deleting the burn reference because Alcare said, "the lesions on her back may [have been] caused by burns." But according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1996 Annual Report, Alcare found that "the injuries were first or second-degree burns which had been inflicted during the previous twenty-four hours."
           The embassy also had access to a medical report by Dr. G.R. Gutierrez of Grants, New Mexico attesting to "one-hundred-eleven second-degree circular burns approximately one cm. across" on the sister's back.
           Stroock told me that he didn't place much stock in Gutierrez's conclusions because he "examined her after several months." In fact, Gutierrez's medical report was dated November 8, 1989, just six days after her abduction.
           Surprisingly few of the declassified State Department documents discuss Alejandro. A March 19, 1990 cable states: "We need to close the loop on the issue of the 'North American' named by Ortiz. . . . THE EMBASSY IS VERY SENSITIVE ON THIS ISSUE." Officials would become even more sensitive as public support for Ortiz in the United States grew. Soon embassy officials were professing sympathy for the tortured nun. And on April 10, 1990, in what looked like a dramatic turnaround, Stroock wrote the following to Ortiz's lawyer: "I know, from my own personal observation, that she was seriously beaten and mistreated. She suffered a horrible, traumatic experience. As a fellow human being and the father of four daughters, I have suffered for her and prayed for her. No one in this Mission has any reason to disbelieve [her] sworn affidavit." Still, Stroock went on voicing doubts about her story long after the abduction. "If you write a story that says it happened, you're liable to be in big trouble," he told me. "There's not one shred of evidence to prove that it happened."

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