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
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
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
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
"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
"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,
"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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."