It was more than three years ago, Elvin Laurel recalled, that the soldiers came to his jail cell, handcuffed and blindfolded him, and drove him through the night to a remote field outside Manila.
With guns to his head, Laurel said, his military captors walked him over to an open grave. There, they threw in a fellow prisoner who had been beaten within inches of death. The man in the grave was bleeding and in pain, Laurel said, but still very much alive.
The soldiers removed Laurel's blindfold and handcuffs. They put a shovel in his hand and ordered him to fill in the grave with dirt.
"They told me to bury him," Laurel said in an interview with The Times as he returned this week to Manila for the first time since he fled last September. "I didn't recognize the guy, but I could hear him murmuring, and his eyes were still half open. I had no choice. The guards had guns on me. What could I do?
"They did it to me three times--once in November (1982), once in February and once in July, 1983. But I never recognized any of those guys."
Image Stays With Him
The image of being forced to bury people alive, though, never left Laurel's mind.
Even more than the merciless beatings with clubs, the electric shocks and the permanent physical damage Laurel says he suffered because he was denied medical care during his three years of imprisonment, it is those live burials that have haunted Laurel in the six months since he fled to his home in Los Angeles, he said.
"That is why I came back," said Laurel, 39. "I want to prove to God that I'm doing my best to find out who these people were and to clear my conscience. Can you imagine what it's like to close your eyes and hear the faint murmurs of men you were burying in the ground?"
Laurel's story, told Wednesday after he returned to the Philippines with 165 other California-based Filipino exiles, is one of the most graphic accounts of human torture under the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos. The physical and psychological scars he and others bear are likely to remain long after Marcos' government machinery is dismantled and investigations into his hidden wealth are concluded.
During a press conference Friday, Jose Diokno, the head of a new government commission on human rights, declared that killings and brutal torture of political prisoners by certain factions of the Philippine military were "very widespread" under Marcos.
Will Document Tortures
His organization's top priority, he said, will be tracing 602 prisoners who are still missing and documenting extreme cases of torture, including reports that soldiers forced prisoners to dig their own graves or bury other prisoners alive.
Diokno, a longtime civil rights lawyer, said Laurel was a legitimate political prisoner and that his allegations are "entirely plausible."
"We know for a fact that some people were forced to dig graves, but usually they were for themselves," Diokno said in an interview after the press conference. "The military forced them to dig their own graves and then they were shot and thrown in."
Diokno and leaders of a Roman Catholic Church-backed civil rights group, Task Force Detainees, said Laurel's claim would help explain how so many prisoners disappeared without a trace. The civil rights group for years has maintained in Philippine courts that many of the missing political prisoners were liquidated by the military and secretly buried in unmarked graves.
Laurel's story is further bolstered by reports from the human rights group Amnesty International, from the United Nations and by several U.S.-based civil rights groups, detailing military beatings and assassinations during the years after Marcos declared martial law in 1972.
"We literally have our hands full looking into all the violations of human rights by the Marcos government," Diokno said, adding that his commission ultimately will recommend prosecution of all soldiers and civilians implicated in the torture--even those still serving in the government.
His committee already has begun amassing documentation on each case of torture through a Manila group called the Assn. of Former Political Detainees, which has collected scores of affidavits from former prisoners who were physically and psychologically tortured during their years in Marcos' prisons. Most of them, like Laurel, had never been officially charged with a crime or tried.
President Corazon Aquino, who took office after Marcos fled the country Feb. 25, has said that the investigations into past human rights violations are a top priority of her government, Diokno noted Friday. Aquino believes that her husband, opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., was a victim of the military when he was assassinated Aug. 21, 1983, while returning from three years of self-exile in America.
"Because of her own personal history," Diokno said, "President Aquino is someone deeply committed to the human rights of her people."
Accused as Terrorist
But Laurel's return from Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life, was far different from Benigno Aquino's ill-fated homecoming. Although a staunch opponent of Marcos, Laurel was not a politician, and the reasons for his imprisonment in September, 1982, apparently were not his political beliefs alone.
Laurel, a U.S. citizen and graduate of Carson High School in Southern California, was accused of being an urban terrorist. He had come to Manila in 1982 for the first time since he was 12 with the intention of helping an underground group known as the April 6 Movement.
In the interview, Laurel refused to confirm or deny his alleged involvement in the conspiracy by the April 6 movement to use bombings and arson to destabilize the government and bring Marcos down. Several hotels and other establishments owned by Marcos and his friends were the targets.
His story made it clear, though, that Elvin Laurel was not a smoke-alarm salesman, as he had maintained during the years of torture and interrogation by Marcos' military.
"I was an underground freedom fighter," Laurel said several times during the three-hour interview at a coffee shop in one of the hotels that had been bombed during the group's four-year campaign of urban terrorism. The siege caused damage to many buildings and injured several people.
Was 'Freedom Fighter'
"I will not deny or admit what I did," Laurel said. "All I will say is I did my participation as a freedom fighter for my people and my country."
But, he added, "even if I made a mistake, that's no reason to treat someone like an animal."
Laurel conceded during the interview that he had made contact with members of the April 6 Movement soon after he arrived in Manila on Sept. 9, 1982. He also said that military police arrested him two weeks later in a bathroom of the Manila Hilton Hotel, where he was washing his burning hands just moments after a bomb exploded prematurely in the hotel's nearby coffee shop.
It was then, Laurel said, that his three-year nightmare began--a nightmare that has left him emaciated and deeply disturbed.
After three days of intensive interrogation, Laurel said he was placed in a cell without light, water or human contact for more than a week at the headquarters of Marcos' military intelligence at Camp Crame in Manila.
He said he was repeatedly beaten and, at one point, forced to lie for hours tied to blocks of ice while water dripped on his forehead.
"In early November, the guards took me out one night. They blindfolded me and handcuffed me and put me in a jeep. I tried to figure out how far we drove by counting my pulse. When we stopped, there were 6,000 beats, so I figured it was about an hour.
"They took off my blindfold and led me to a grave, where they threw in some guy who was half dead. Then they made me bury him."
Laurel said he believed the burials were meant to tell him, "This is what's going to happen to you," and to force him to implicate Aquino's husband in the wave of bombings and arson. "But they never got anything out of me," Laurel added.
After nearly three years, Laurel was freed, but he said he believes he was ultimately released from prison on bail because he was a U.S. citizen and an Army veteran, who had served in combat in Vietnam.
"If they thought I was a Filipino citizen, I would have been dead long ago," Laurel said.
Yet after his release a year ago, Laurel said he was too frightened to fight the government or track the men he had buried. He had never been formally charged or tried for his alleged crimes, and the military made it clear he could be picked up again at any time.
"Eventually I realized they were going to hold this over me forever, so I escaped and came back to Los Angeles," Laurel said.
Tied Up Guard
Laurel's U.S. passport indicates that he left Manila last Sept. 28. He said the Marcos government had ordered that immigration authorities bar his exit, but he said he made it past customs and immigration officials by using a forged letter from a top Manila prosecutor. Finally, he said, he had to tie up a guard who tried to detain him in a holding room just before he was about to board his plane back to Los Angeles.
He returned to that same Manila airport Wednesday with a personal mission: to work with authorities of the new government in helping identify the three men he was forced to bury and to secure a letter of amnesty from President Aquino, whose first official act was to order the release of all political prisoners under detention throughout the country.
Many of the other returning exiles this week said privately that Aquino was not doing enough for the former prisoners. "We were the ones who started this revolution," said one of Laurel's traveling companions, Danilo Lamila, who also lives in Los Angeles. "We think people like Elvin deserve recognition as heroes. Just saying you're free to go isn't enough."
Releases Going Slowly
Members of Diokno's commission agreed Friday. Because of bureaucratic delays, fewer than a third of the more than 450 prisoners have been released, despite the fact that Aquino's order was sent to military officials more than three weeks ago.
But for Laurel himself, a letter of pardon will be enough.
Laurel said he needs something more than an anonymous order for blanket amnesty--"something to show my kids that I'm not what Marcos said I was."
Either with or without additional recognition, though, Laurel said he and many others in the group that arrived Wednesday will return to Los Angeles in a week or two.
"This visit might be the most important thing in my life, but I just can't stay here--not anymore; not after those three years."
The memories of those years came welling up for Laurel and several others during a party Friday night at a private home in Manila. As a sign of reconciliation, the party's host had invited Brig. Gen. Ramon Montano, who was the chief investigator of the April 6 Movement and the man who ordered Laurel's initial arrest.
"Hey, Elvin," Montano said with a smile when he spotted Laurel. "You're back. So, no hard feelings, eh?"
Laurel just shook the general's hand, nodded and walked off for a glass of Coke.