Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was brutally tortured in Guatemala in 1989, founded and directs the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International.

What should people know about torture?

Torture is a form of terrorism, a man-made epidemic that is being practiced by more than 150 governments around the world. How many people know there are an estimated 500,000 survivors residing in the U.S. alone? This is a small fraction, because it doesn't include the many millions around the world. And how many people know that there are torturers living in the U.S.? That number ranges between 1000 and 10,000.

Are these torturers originally from other countries? They are. It's such a contradiction, because many torture survivors who seek refuge in our homeland are denied asylum and sent back to their home country, where they are subjected to interrogation, torture, and sometimes they don't survive. It's important to note that governments-including my own-know very well what they're doing. Another concern is that there are respectable attorneys, journalists, and others in our own homeland who want the U.S. government to legalize and/or use torture. What rationale do these journalists and others have for wanting to legalizing torture? Getting secrets from terrorists? Yes, a lot of it has come about as a result of Sept 11. There are people out there who have information. Torture supposedly is used to obtain information. That may be true, but another reality is that 99% of the time when a person is detained and interrogated-and interrogation for me is a form a torture-when the infliction of horrible pain is visited upon a person, people are going to say anything in order to stop the pain. So for someone to promote the use of torture to extract information from a person, that's the worst excuse ever. It's just not reliable. Another thing I try to help people understand is that torture is not just happening just in Third World countries. It's happening here in the U.S. Under what circumstances?

It's happening in prisons-woman prisoners are being mistreated. Men who are being arrested. We don't even know what's happening to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But the point I'm trying to convey to others is that no one is immune to torture. I use myself as an example. I went to Guatemala in 1987. I'm a U.S. citizen, a Catholic nun. I believed that no one could touch me, that I was safe. If anything, my U.S. citizenship was supposed to protect me. And I learned a hard lesson that I still live with every day-that no one is immune to torture. Not even children. We have a case of a child, two and a half years old, who was tortured in Turkey.

For what possible reason?

The mother was illegally detained and tortured. To extract information from her, the perpetrators threatened to harm her daughter. In the end, both the mother and child were tortured. They wanted more information from the mother. The only way to obtain info was to torture her child in her presence. It's happening in 150 countries. When it becomes legal here, no one is safe. What's a practical thing the average American can do to fight torture? As I said, there are law professors, journalists, and media pundits who are advocating the legalization and/or use of torture in the U.S. So those concerned about torture might contact their members of Congress to ask if they know that there are well-known people in the U.S. who are advocating this, and ask where they stand on this issue. Another thing is to learn how our U.S. foreign policy and tax dollars are being used to support torture in the world today. I use my case as an example: When I was in Guatemala, the tax dollars of my parents, my brothers and sisters were used to finance torture. To finance my torture. The average American can become a member of my organization, TASSC. Our staff here is three full-time people: Orlando, a survivor from the Philippines; Concei, a survivor from Angola; and myself. Every single member of TASSC is a survivor of torture. We come from every continent. We are committed to creating a world where what happened to us can never happen to you or your loved ones.
What's the worst thing a well-meaning outsider can do to a torture survivor? Many people find it inconceivable that others could commit such unspeakable acts. Hearing that someone's been tortured, the first response is frequently denial: "Something that terrible could not have happened. Human beings just don't do that to each other." So the survivor is confronted with doubt. The torturers' prediction comes true: "If you survive, no one will believe you." The survivors are put in a position where [they] she has [have] to prove that [they were] she was tortured. I would suggest that people remember that things more horrible than they can imagine do happen.

And there are some practical things: If a survivor says something that sounds strange, accept it. In the middle of a conversation, a person might be asked not to look at the survivor or to put out a cigarette or to stop humming. Each of these might be a reminder of the torture and threatens the survivor with flashbacks.

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