Saturday, December 25, 1999

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was brutalized in
Guatemala in 1989, spoke at UH's
human rights conference.

UH program
playing role
in world peace

Torture victim speaks

By Susan Kreifels


WITH the misery of conflicts like Kosovo and East Timor likely to continue into the next millennium -- and with international response weak and inadequate so far -- the world must find new ways of handling new kinds of wars, says the director of a local agency that trains people to respond to such crises.

And Frederick "Skip" Burkle predicts there will be growing demand for an upcoming program at the University of Hawaii that will explore new frontiers to alleviate, and hopefully avoid, the suffering caused by ethnic wars, genocide and other man-made and natural disasters.

"Ethnic cleansing has become a familiar strategy in which more children die than soldiers," said Burkle, director of the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, based at Tripler Army Medical Center.

"There were no high marks this decade" for handling these crises, Burkle said. "We responded rather than prevented."

Often the world has only watched TV replays and not acted as hundreds of thousands of ethnic and political victims have fallen to machetes, starvation, torture, rape and economic displacement. Recent reports have criticized the United Nations for incompetence, made worse by the political paralysis of the United States and other major powers, in stopping massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia.

More conflicts ahead

Burkle said research predicts another bloody decade of countries sorting themselves out in the aftermath of the Cold War.

To better prepare for the next onslaughts, the Center of Excellence and the UH-Manoa College of Social Sciences have developed a new certificate program being offered this spring semester called "Designing a Path to Peace: Preparing Asia-Pacific Professionals for World Peace in the New Millennium."

The semester program is not only the first of its kind in the western United States, but is the only one to focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Burkle said.

The Center of Excellence, a one-of-a-kind place that works with the World Health Organization on civilian-military humanitarian efforts, taps the expertise of 130 faculty members around the world and 32 staff here. The center's experts will join professors from at least 15 UH departments to conduct research, and educate and train people to manage both natural and man-made disasters and offer humanitarian assistance.

Program coordinator James White said Tulane University and Johns Hopkins University both want to share online versions of the UH program. White said the South Korean government also has requested similar training for its people this summer, and he expects more such interest.

"There's no doubt UH is leading in this area," White said.

The UH program has lined up internationally known experts as lecturers: Maj. Gen. Franklin van Kappen, a former military adviser to the U.N. secretary-general; Karl Bilt, former prime minister of Sweden and now special representative for the secretary-general in the Balkans; and Dame Margaret Anstey, former U.N. special representative in Angola.

'Complex emergencies'

Burkle said at least 20 million people are uprooted in their own countries, and another 20 million have escaped across borders because of what experts call "complex emergencies" like Bosnia. Thirty-eight such conflicts continue worldwide, and civilians, mostly children, make up most casualties rather than soldiers.

"We don't know what the direction is," Burkle said. "The United Nations, the military is changing. It's up to universities to respond to events, and change events."

Heading up the program on the UH-Manoa side is Anthony Marsella, a professor of psychology. One focus of the program will be the need for international law to deal with such tragedies as ethnic cleansings, he said.

Unlike business and communications that have become completely global, "humanitarian concerns have somehow not caught up," Marsella said.

"We have to bring the law up to date with the changing circumstances of our world to react to people like (Yugoslav President Slobodan) Milosevic, who are engaged in genocidal acts, so they can be held before the law," he said.

"We can't sit by and have people killed with impunity at the simple wish of some political leader."

Continuous process

Getting sovereign nations to agree to such laws may seem like a pipe dream. But Burkle and Marsella say continued international consciousness by individuals and governments will eventually bring better "trigger devices" for handling such crises.

The U.N. charter, Burkle says, was developed when wars were fought across borders, not within borders, and it needs to be rewritten.

The Center of Excellence was recently certified as the only training institute in the United States for preparing American and foreign military members for U.N. peacekeeping duties.

"Peacekeeping forces must be peace enforcement forces," he said.

Thirty international experts on humanitarian assistance met here recently to kick off the new program and discuss the best ways to deal with conflicts in Angola and East Timor.

One of the speakers at the conference, Sister Dianna Ortiz, knows firsthand how important the new UH study program is.

Ortiz, who suffered political torture in Guatemala, is writing a book on her experiences "in a quest for justice" for all the victims of harsh regimes and ethnic battles. "It's a story of thousands and thousands of people."

Religious woman
lives to tell about
torture in Guatemala

By Susan Kreifels


She died and was resurrected, the nun says.

Those who tortured and violated her in a Guatemala military cell in 1989 stripped her of "everything that had given meaning to my life," says Sister Dianna Ortiz. "My dignity, my faith in God."

By the time she left Guatemala, "I was already dead. I felt so estranged from the entire human family." It was a long and painful struggle back to any feeling of life -- and even then, the slightly built woman would never be the same.

Ortiz, who spoke at a recent human rights conference to kick off a new study program at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, was a center of controversy for years regarding the United States' involvement in the 36-year civil conflict in Guatemala. Central America's last and longest civil war ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace agreement between government and guerrilla leaders.

But for Ortiz, 40, her questions remain unanswered.

In 1987, when she arrived in the highland village of San Miguel Acatan in Guatemala, she was a young nun from New Mexico who was full of passion to answer what she felt was God's calling: teaching poor Mayan children to read and write.

The year she arrived, a civilian president had been democratically elected, but the indigenous villagers, who lived in an area known for guerrilla rebels, had been subjected to years of military abuse, she said.

"I never saw education as a subversive act," Ortiz said. "When children learn to read and write, they begin to question and demand basic human rights. That was considered a threat to the military."

In her first year there, she began to receive anonymous death threats and temporarily returned to the U.S., determined to go back to San Miguel but hoping whoever wanted to frighten her would forget her. The terrorists did not forget. On Nov. 2, 1989, as she left a retreat in Guatemala City, she was abducted by two men and taken to a military jail in a national police car. During the next 24 hours, the two men and an accomplice interrogated her, gang-raped her and left more than 111 cigarette burns on her body. They forced her to hurt another woman prisoner.

A fourth person named Alejandro -- a fair-skinned man who spoke with "perfect American English" and who the others called "boss" -- later came into the cell and told them he was driving her to the U.S. Embassy, she recalled. Despite her tortured state, her intuition told her not to trust him, and she jumped out of his vehicle, eventually making her way back to the U.S.

Many of her memories up to the torture were wiped out, so much so that she didn't recognize family members or nuns in her order.

"I felt like the torturers made their home in me. I felt like I was weak and gave in. I had become the torturer. I had a great feeling of guilt," she said.

Healing began at the Marjorie Kovler Center in Chicago, where she received treatment specifically designed for torture survivors. She believes pressure from her religious order and human rights groups saved her from death in that Guatemala cell. But the nagging question remained: What was a man she believed to be American doing inside the military cell in Guatemala? Why was he giving orders?

In 1996 the State Department said there was no truth to her allegation that a U.S. agent was in control of Guatemalan soldiers who tortured her. She camped out in front of the White House for six weeks to get information about her case. What she finally got had many blank pages.

Today, she works with a support group she helped start in Washington, D.C., that reminds the public of the many lives shattered by political oppression and torture. Still, she often stays awake until the sun rises, when she can hear voices and movement, and feels safe enough to sleep.

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