April 2, 1996

Mary McGrory

Sister Dianna Ortiz stood under the budding tulip trees of Lafayette Square and implored the man across the street to feel her pain.

Sister Dianna doesn't look much older than President Clinton's 16-year-old daughter Chelsea, but she is a 37-year-old Ursuline nun who survived a hideous chapter in Guatemala's grim story. In 1989 she was kidnapped, raped and tortured by Guatemalan death squads and turned loose with 111 cigarette burns on her body and a story nobody wanted to believe.

They still don't. The government's attitude was pretty well played out by Park Folice, Just as the gathering-- several hundred casually dressed nuns and priests--was getting underway, the police came and demanded to see the permit. It was, they said, for the east side. They must uproot the lectern and resettle some four yards from where they were. The government, which has yet to give Sister Dianna one paper related to her case, has felt all along that she should keep moving.

A year ago, President Cllnton ordered the intelligence Oversight Board to conduct a probe. The only word she and her lawyers have received is: wait. She feels she has waited long enough. There is steel in the fragile frame, a cool head under the silky black hair. She will keep a vigil in Lafayette Square 21 hours a day until the administration divulges what it knows about her ordeal and the identity of a man caHed "Alejandro" who supervised her torture, and who spoke "unmistakably" American English and broken Spanish. He proposed to take her to the U.S. Embassy, where a friend of his would help her. She jumped out of his jeep when it was stopped in traffic on the way.

In the park, she was surrounded by several hundred sympathizers. They listened in rapt, horrified silence as she began to read, in a clear, steady voice, an account of what she endured beginning on Nov. 2, 1989. She has told the story many times, to U.S. and Guatemalan officials, none of whom have done anything she knows of to bring her torturers or Alejandro to justice.

In previous testimony, she has left out one incident. This time, she told her "guilty" secret. In six vears, she could bring herself to tell only three or four people about the ultimate horror. She could talk about what happened to her; martyrdom is for her manageable. But what happened to another woman because of her haunts her night and day. As she approached the heart of darkness to her story, Sister Dianna's voice began to tremble. She had been handed a small machete by her torturers. "They put their hands onto the handle. on top of mine, And I had no choice, I was forced to use it against another human being. What I remember is blood gushing--spurting like a water fountain -- droplets of blood spattering everywhere."

That is what she cannot live with.

She shook her head, and then she laid her shiny head down on the lectern on her folded arms, and sobbed. Friends came and led her over to the side. She collapsed into the arms of Jennifer Harbury's attorney. Jose Pertierra. Harbury's husband, a Guatemalan rebel leader, was killed by death squads--she says with CIA complicity. Pat Drake of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, where Sister Dianna now works, took up the reading. Sister Dianna, looking drained, came back for the end.

While she was recovering. her friend explained her qualities. Sister Alice Zachman, the humble and redoubtable friend of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, said Sister Dianna is an artist, a poet and a musician -- although she doesn't play the guitar anymore. "She never sleeps. She keeps the radio and the light on. She's fending off nightmares." Betsy Swart, an environmentalist who volunteers at the commission, says Sister Dianna enjoys daily life and "is always doing sweet things for people in the office."

Central American thugs have a special animus against gringo women who teach their people subversive doctrines like justice and democracy. U.S. officials of the "better-dead-than-red" school hated to condemn fascist friends. When four U.S. nuns were slaughtered in El Salvador in 1980, our secretary of state, Alexander Haig, said they might have bet•n running a roadblock. Fortunately, one of the sisters, Ita Ford, had a combative Manhattan lawyer for a brother, and he fought back.

All Sister Dianna asks her government for is the truth, if tax dollars wt•re paying Alejandro and the other torturers.

Before the somber afternoon was over, after the palms were distributed and the Scriptures were read, she looked surprisingly up to challenging a president. A young man stepped up to the microphone and began to sing the anthem of those without human rights. "We are broken, tortured people, and we are singing for our Lives."

Wiped out as she was. Sister Dianna sang along.

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