“If you survive, no one will believe you. No one will care.”
That’s what Sister Dianna Ortiz’s captors told her when she was abducted and tortured in Guatemala almost 18 years ago. When Ortiz escaped and went back to the United States, those words rang eerily true: She tried to tell the government what had happened to her, to no avail.
However, this was not the case on Thursday night, when a crowd of more than seventy people of all ages and backgrounds heard Ortiz talk about her torture and activism. The address kicked off the Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights’ events this weekend that will focus on torture.
Ortiz went to Guatemala in 1987 to teach Mayan children how to read, write, and embrace their culture in an anti-Mayan society. Ortiz received death threats because of her work, and on Nov. 2, 1989, members the Guatemalan security forces took her to a secret prison, where she was burned with cigarettes more than 111 times and gang-raped.
“Everything that was done to me by my torturers remains branded into my mind, my soul, even to this day,” Ortiz said, her voice cracking as she retold her experience. “The memories are as real to me as they were on that November day.”
Ortiz had to pause in her speech, eyes gleaming, when she recalled a woman she met in prison, who told her, “Sea fuerte.” Be strong. Ortiz promised her fellow captives that if she made it, she would not forget them and she would tell the world what happened. After meeting other torture survivors, Ortiz helped start Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), which she now directs. Ortiz has made the fight against torture her life battle.
Torture has been recently reported in more than 150 countries, Ortiz said, and the United States has an ambiguous position on the topic. TASSC is fighting to repeal the U.S. Military Commissions Act of 2006, she said, because it allows the federal government to torture and providing immunity to the torturers.
The TASSC not only combats the practice of torture, but is also a strong support group for the men, women and children who have been victims of it.
“Torture does not end with the release from some clandestine prison. For many torture survivors, surviving torture is far worse than the actual torture itself,” Ortiz said.
Several members of TASSC were present that night to support Ortiz. During the second half of the address, five other torture survivors were on stage with Ortiz to answer the public’s questions.
At the close of her speech though, Ortiz warned about the danger of holding conferences without also taking action.
“I have been to a number of meeting and conferences,” Ortiz said, “but sometimes I get the feeling that meetings of torture opponents may be similar to cocktail parties: We come together, we exchange mutually acceptable views and we go home, satisfied that we have done something.”