Surviving Hell on Earth

What is it like to journey to hell, to go through an experience so horrific that it stays with you forever?

An unfortunate few have experienced what could be called hell on earth, and are reminded of the torment daily.

Sister Dianna Ortiz, a missionary nun, was kidnapped and tortured in Guatemala.

"Every single day, I get a glimpse of hell," the teary-eyed Sister Ortiz told ABC News.

Author Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust, though he lost his parents and younger sister during those terrible years.

"Does hell exist?" Wiesel asked. "Of course. I believe it's here."

And Ishmael Beah was a child soldier forced into fighting the civil war in Sierra Leone.

"We were so deep into that hell … it almost seemed that nothing else existed," he said.

"I do believe that you can lose your humanity and go to some place that is dark, and … which it could be hell," Beah said. "I would have never imagined that I could be capable of doing some of the things that I was pressed into doing."

'Kill or Be Killed'

Beah was born into a quiet, simple life in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. But in 1991, everything changed. A bloody civil war broke out and crept across the countryside. Beah was only 13 years old when rebels attacked his village and slaughtered his entire family.

"I went from knowing that my family existed to the next minute knowing … all of them dying," he recalled.

Beah fled from the violence for more than a year, eventually finding a haven in a village occupied by rebel soldiers. But soon, he was given a machine gun and pressed into service as a soldier. The rebels drugged and brainwashed the boys to fight.

"It was literally kill or be killed," he said.

Beah was one of 10,000 children, some as young as 9 years old, who fought in the decade-long civil war. For motivation, the boy soldiers watched films like "First Blood," cheering every gun battle and comparing the onscreen body count to their own.

"You went out and fought, shot people, and then came back … did drugs and watched war films. You're not allowed to sit alone and think," Beah said.

"The first time you kill somebody, it's very devastating. It does something to your spirit and … you're traumatized," he said. "But then, as this goes on, it becomes normalized again. … It becomes easier as time goes on. It becomes the world, you know, it becomes the only thing that you know how to do. "

They were also forced to snort a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine known as "brown-brown" that kept them in a violent fog and numbed their guilt and pain.

Beah said it gave him "a tremendous rush of energy … and it just numbed you to everything around you. And it made looking at … atrocities that were committed … you, you thought they were funny, you know. We thought they were funny at certain times."

Beah said he no longer knew the difference between right and wrong.

"We had lost our humanity, and we had crossed … to the other side so far, you know."

'Losing Trust in Humanity'

Beah's descent into hell was gradual, but Sister Ortiz was plunged into hell in an instant.

"I never want to relive the moment of seeing the death of faith. The death of faith in humanity," she said. Sister Ortiz said she "lived hell."

In 1987, the Order of Saint Ursula nun moved to the war-ravaged nation of Guatemala to teach children.

"I was very interested in working closely with the poor, the oppressed of the world. And I also had a deep interest in working with children. And I felt that was the calling that God was leading me to," she said.

But she was suspected of being involved with rebel fighters, and one day armed men grabbed her off the street.

Sister Ortiz was taken to a military installation where she said she was raped and tortured.

"At one time, during the torture, they asked me questions," she said. "And for every question they asked, they burned my back with a cigarette.… I had more than 111 cigarette burns on my body. And that was just my back. That did not include my chest. So I know that more than 111 questions were asked of me. That was just the beginning."

Sister Ortiz said she was lowered into a pit filled with decapitated bodies and rats, and that her captors gave her a machete and forced her to plunge it into the body of her cell mate, a woman she had befriended in the darkness.

"I carry a lot of guilt with me, to this day, for my inability to help others in need, my inability … to help the woman who was in the prison cell with me. Sometimes I can be really hard on myself," Sister Ortiz admitted.

After 24 hours, she was inexplicably released, but she is reminded of her ordeal every day.

"I carried so much anger. And it paralyzed me. And it made me feel like I could not trust in others," she said. "And losing trust in humanity is … death. It's hell."

The Hell of the Holocaust

We've all seen the horrifying images of the Holocaust. The National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University provided some of those images from the documentary film "Death Mills" for our story. They are images of prisoners who have lived in hell at the hands of man, and Elie Wiesel was one of them. He was a teenager when his family was taken by the Nazis and loaded into a train car.

"We had no idea where we were going. The word 'Auschwitz' never meant anything to us," Wiesel recalled. "The long barbed wire was infinite. The lines going somewhere, but we still didn't know where."

Wiesel said he is still haunted by the image he saw upon arrival -- flames from the chimneys and the bodies of children being thrown into the fire.

When asked how he kept from losing his mind, Wiesel replied, "That's a question that I ask myself to this day. But perhaps I did … without knowing it."

Wiesel said he never knew what happened to the concentration camp guards who murdered his parents.

"I hope that if there is an afterlife, that they are … before the celestial tribunal … having to answer for their deeds every day of eternity."

'You Can Escape Hell'

Ishmael Beah, Sister Dianna Ortiz and Elie Wiesel still wrestle with their traumatic experiences, yet they all believe that something meaningful and pure and good can come of their ordeals.

Beah was ultimately rescued by United Nations workers, rehabilitated and adopted by an American woman. He earned a degree in political science, wrote a gripping account of his life titled "A Long Way Gone," and now crusades against the exploitation of children in war.

"I celebrate every moment. Waking up in the morning, not having to run, not waking up to gunshots -- it's enough for me," Beah said.

"You can truly escape hell," he said. "The way I think you escape that word is to … transform that experience into something positive so that you can use it for the benefit of others."

He said he's finally found peace in "just being alive." "I'm not saying that I don't feel sad or I don't feel certain things, but I just appreciate my life, for whatever it is."

Twenty years after her ordeal, Ortiz' pain is still on the surface, but she has founded Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, TAASC, in Washington, D.C., and works to help others. She's also written an account of her experience called "The Blindfold's Eye: My Journey From Torture to Truth."

"All I can think of is my experience of torture and what it did to me," she said. "No one heals from torture. We learn how to live with our experience. We learn not to let our experience of torture define who we are, or the path that we will walk."

'Hope Rather Than Despair'

Wiesel could not speak of his experience for 10 years, but the need to justify his own survival moved him to put his emotions on paper.

"I know that there are no words to describe what I went through," he said. "And yet I use words to bring hope rather than despair."

Those words became the haunting classic "Night," which has sold more than 6 million copies in the United States alone, and is available in 30 languages.

Wiesel's years in hell compelled him to a life of activism: He has devoted his life to the fight against genocide around the world. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is still an icon in the campaign for tolerance.

Wiesel said that the ultimate reward for the life he has lived is that people will be able to understand that "man is capable of inflicting the worst humiliation on the other," and "it is possible to humiliate a person to the point that that person would rather be dead."

But he also believes that evil can be fought and defeated. "Of course it can," he said. "It can be fought, because it must be fought."

And like Beah and Ortiz, Wiesel firmly believes that "life is to be celebrated."

The remarkable thing about Beah, Sister Ortiz and Wiesel is that their healing came from investing more faith in humanity. When asked if there was a way to keep out of hell, Wiesel made reference to Jean Paul Sartre's play "No Exit."

"It's by seeing in the other not the source of evil, but a companion, a possible friend. Surely an ally, and not a stranger," he said.

Beah admitted there could be some people who are inherently evil, but said, "I do believe in the basic goodness of every human being."

And despite Sister Ortiz' suffering, she knows "goodness will conquer evil. That's what keeps me alive. If I don't have that belief, I'm dead."