WINDSOR TERRACE — Sister Dianna Ortiz struggled daily with memories of torture and rape at the hands of Guatemala security forces in 1989, but she would not let that define her life.
The Ursuline sister from New Mexico was 62 when she died of cancer on Feb. 19 in Washington, D.C. After escaping the day-long torture session, Sister Dianna went on to become a tireless advocate for torture victims worldwide.
In 1998 she founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. In recent years, she worked with the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi USA, most recently as its deputy director.
But Sister Dianna was not only challenged to forge her future of service. She also struggled to regain her past. The trauma of torture stole her memories of life before the kidnapping. When she returned to the U.S., she did not recognize family members or fellow sisters in the Ursuline community.
The ordeals are set out in her 2002 book, the award-winning “The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.”
“The damage torture does can never be undone,” she wrote in the epilogue. “If I survived for any reason, it is to say that.”
Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, described Sister Dianna as a longtime colleague and close personal friend.
“She was a survivor and always would be known as a survivor,” Zokovitch said. “She lived with those memories and struggled with them every day. But she was determined not to be defined by that experience and she worked on a variety of projects for us.
“She became my very good friend, not just as a torture survivor, but my friend.”
Sister Dianna was born Sept. 2, 1958, in Colorado Springs to a family of eight children.
Grants, N.M., about 80 miles west of Albuquerque, became the family’s home. Sister Dianna had a lifelong ambition to be a nun; after high school, she entered the Ursuline novitiate at Mount St. Joseph in Maple Mount, Kentucky.
She became a kindergarten teacher in Kentucky, but in 1987 she journeyed to Guatemala’s western highlands to teach Mayan children to read, write, and understand the Bible.
But Guatemala at that time was mired in a civil war that began two years after Sister Dianna’s birth. The U.S.-backed military fought Marxist guerrillas, but thousands of innocent civilians would die in the crossfire.
Death threats came to Sister Dianna, so she took refuge in a convent to evaluate her future in Guatemala. On Nov. 2, 1989, she was reading in the convent’s garden when she heard a voice say, “Hola, mi Amor. We have some things to discuss.”
Sister Dianna described her ordeal in a narrative for the group, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
“They left me in a dark cell, where I listened to the cries of a man and woman being tortured,” she said. “When the men returned, they accused me of being a guerrilla and began interrogating me.
“For every answer I gave them, they burned my back or my chest with cigarettes. Afterward, they gang-raped me repeatedly.”
Sister Dianna said the captors dumped her in a room with another woman. They exchanged names, wept, and held each other. The woman told her in Spanish, “Dianna, they will try to break you. Be strong.”
That woman would soon suffer a gruesome execution. Sister Dianna subsequently was lowered into a rat-infested pit of dead or dying people of all ages. Then the captors raped her again.
Next, a man called upon another by the name of “Alejandro” to join in the “fun.” But Alejandro scolded the rapists, telling them that their prisoner was an American nun, and her disappearance was reported in the media.
Sister Dianna said he spoke with a North American accent. He helped her get dressed and took her away from the jail. In perfect English, he pleaded with her to forget what happened.
He said her kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity because her name was similar to a well-known female guerrilla the security forces were trying to capture.
She surmised that he was an American operative training and advising the government in the war.
While stuck in traffic, Sister Dianna jumped out of Alejandro’s vehicle. After the escape, she was quickly returned to the U.S. However, once home, she did not remember her parents, siblings, or fellow sisters due to how the trauma gripped her.
Nightmares of the torture followed Sister Dianna as she slowly worked to relearn her childhood and years in the Ursuline convent. Eventually, she was strong enough to help gather documents toward exposing U.S. links to human rights abuses in Guatemala.
She became a co-plaintiff in a class-action civil lawsuit against Guatemalan defense minister Héctor Gramajo. The plaintiffs, including citizens of Guatemala, alleged Gramajo was aware of and supported torture and murder conducted by security units under his control.
Gramajo was ordered to pay $47.5 million to the plaintiffs. Sister Dianna’s share was $5 million, but the plaintiffs never collected the money because Gramajo declared he was broke. He died in 2004 when a swarm of killer bees attacked him.
Sister Dianna got on with her life as best she could. Her efforts bore much fruit.
She filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which later determined that Guatemala’s security forces violated the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1992.
Kerry Kennedy, president of RFK Human Rights, said Sister Dianna’s efforts paved the way “to get the United States to declassify long-secret files on Guatemala and shed light on some of the darkest moments of the country’s history and American foreign policy.”
Kennedy added that Sister Dianna’s life’s work is a focus of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power human rights education curriculum.
“By sharing her story, tens of thousands of young people around the world have been inspired to transform their own pain into action, and ultimately, healing for the world,” Kennedy said. “We have lost a heroic voice, a fierce defender, and a spiritual light.”
Sister Dianna’s funeral, scheduled for March 1, will be private because of social distancing concerns. However, donations in her memory can be made to the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, 8001 Cummings Road, Maple Mount, KY 42356.