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Torture trauma experts in sympathy with Ortiz decision

NCR Staff

Chicago's Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture has dealt, during the past nine years, with more than 1,000 tortured people from more than 35 countries -- from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Argentina to Haiti, from Iran to Vietnam.

"It is not unusual that torture survivors [such as Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz] would feel revictimized in recounting their ordeal," said psychologist Mario Gonzalez, clinical supervisor. "They are re-experiencing what they went through.

"My opinion is that that many survivors, forced by the legal system into an interrogation, are experiencing the interrogatory of the torture," said Guatemala-born Gonzalez. "They are provoked into a flashback -- which is why many people believe there is no recovery from torture," a view Gonzalez does not accept.

"On the contrary," said Gonzalez, alluding to the Ortiz case, "the plain fact of asking for justice is a strong recovery." Gonzalez said he does not underestimate torture's toll nor the fact that the tortured are marked for life.

He said there is a lack of sensitivity by interviewers or prosecutors. The experience can be "so cold, so insensitive, so cynical when they question survivors. It is like the victims of rape being made to prove by the system they were not responsible for the rape, instead of the system automatically taking the position of the victim," explained Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was practicing in Guatemala when increasing numbers of Guatemalans -- students, friends, colleagues at work -- began to be tortured. "I wanted to help these survivors," said Gonzalez, "but helping them was a clandestine act." It became too risky, he said, because to assist them meant risking being labeled communist by those who could act against your family and community.

"So you isolate the individual," said Gonzalez, "that is the system's approach, that is what the system wants to do." After Gonzalez himself was forced to leave Guatemala, he worked with the Guatemalan community and had moved into counseling torture survivors just as the Kovler Center -- named for its major donor, the Marjorie Kovler Foundation -- was being formed.

The Kovler Center -- where Ortiz herself has received treatment -- was established by members of the Illinois Psychological Association, the Illinois Department of Public Aid, attorneys from the Midwest Immigrants' Rights Center, regional leaders of Amnesty International and the directors of Travelers and Immigrants Aid.

"We think of people as torture survivors, not torture victims," stressed Gonzalez. The center describes its approach as providing "each survivor with professional guidance, space and time to process feelings about the traumatic event."

It uses a holistic approach to rehabilitation "which evaluates each survivor's needs and addresses difficulties that affect healing."

A key to treatment, according to center literature, recognizes that "survivors experience feelings of isolation, shame, powerlessness and hopelessness in addition to post-traumatic symptoms (which may include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, memory lapses, hyper-vigilance and chronic physical pain)."

Torture is a "cycle of fear. It is a systematic, violent repression designed to destroy the individual personality. It renders its subjects powerless, dehumanized and immobilized through physical and psychological attacks.

"An essential step in the healing process," states the literature, "is to convey that the survivor's physical and emotional responses to torture are normal reactions to an abnormal situation."

Seven years after being tortured in Guatemala, Ortiz is still dealing with those reactions. Now she needs what the center calls "the time to process feelings" or, as her letter to her friends (see accompanying story) stated, "I need some time to care for myself, to rebuild. I haven't made any decisions."

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1996