par­adise lost

He saved 11 peo­ple from a fire­bombed bus in sub­ur­ban Bris­bane. But he couldn’t save his mate

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT - By Trent Dal­ton

He’s not en­tirely sure who saved the 11 peo­ple trapped inside the burn­ing bus. He knows it was his hulk­ing right leg that kicked open the back door – three kicks, the mir­a­cle sum of every prayer he ever sent to God and every post­work karate les­son he ever took. The trauma of it brings tears to Aguek Nyok’s South-Su­danese eyes. He walks through the com­mu­nal herb ­gar­den of the sprawl­ing unit com­plex in Coop­ers Plains, south Bris­bane, where he lives with his wife and four young kids. He can smell basil and mint and chives. He can smell fire.

Oc­to­ber 28, 2016. A Fri­day, 9.03am. Bris­bane City Coun­cil fleet bus S-1980 pulls into the ­Moor­vale bus stop on Beaudesert Rd, Moorooka, a sub­urb just north of Coop­ers Plains. Three peo­ple board the bus, in­clud­ing 48-year-old An­thony O’Dono­hue, who al­legedly throws an “in­cen­di­ary de­vice” at the de­fence­less bus driver.

The smell of the burn­ing bus. The des­per­ate face of the mum with her baby pressed against the glass pan­els of the rear doors.

“Pleeeeeeease…. open the door! Pleeeeeaase.” Dark smoke fill­ing the bus. Pas­sen­gers squeezed up be­hind the mum and her baby, bod­ies forced to­gether by heat, bod­ies about to be burned alive.

Taxi driver Aguek, 31, knows it was his own right foot that made those me­chan­i­cally fixed doors give way, his long, pow­er­ful arms that ­some­how prised them open. But he’s been think­ing lately it might have been a soft-spo­ken man named Graeme Burow who saved those 11 lives.

“I was work­ing up at Rock­hamp­ton as a ­meat­worker,” Aguek says. “Then the abat­toir went un­der wa­ter in the 2011 floods. We came here and I was chas­ing a job and I couldn’t find any.” He wanted to drive cabs but he couldn’t af­ford the driver train­ing course. Graeme Burow, train­ing man­ager for Yel­low Cabs in Bris­bane, took a shine to wide-smil­ing Aguek and put him through the course for free. If it wasn’t for Burow, he wouldn’t have been on that 12-hour shift on Oc­to­ber 28, 2016. He took a job that morn­ing from the city to Queen El­iz­a­beth II Ju­bilee ­Hos­pi­tal in Coop­ers Plains.

“From there, I thought I’d go to my hair­dresser in Moorooka,” Aguek says, point­ing to his glo­ri­ous and well-kept ’fro glis­ten­ing in the morn­ing sun. “It was 9am and my hair­dresser hadn’t ar­rived yet. So I was walk­ing back to my taxi, which was parked at the taxi rank be­hind that bus stop. That’s when I see the fire hap­pen­ing right in front of me.”

Aguek digs deeper down the rab­bit hole of fate and re­alises there’s prob­a­bly 100 peo­ple across Bris­bane whose gen­eros­ity put him in that cab. Im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials, refugee sup­port work­ers, hous­ing sup­port staffers, the Su­danese com­mu­nity of Moorooka. Soon he set­tles on the thought that the whole open-armed mul­ti­cul­tural city of Bris­bane got those peo­ple out of that burn­ing bus.

Aguek had a friend named Man­meet Alisher who drove cabs for Black & White a few years back. A Pun­jabi man. Kind and funny and end­lessly en­er­getic. He was a part-time singer, an ac­tor, a so­cial worker, one of the most pop­u­lar and well-liked fig­ures across Bris­bane’s close-knit In­dian com­mu­nity. Aguek met Man­meet in the taxi hold­ing bay of Bris­bane Air­port, the vast grid of cabs where driv­ers wait up­wards of an hour to roll out in ac­cor­dance to ar­riv­ing flights.

A friend of Man­meet Alisher’s was a friend for life, so Man­meet Alisher had about a thou­sand life­long friends. Aguek came to call him “brother”. They’d some­times chat for hours in the hold­ing bay and a re­cur­ring word in Man­meet’s con­ver­sa­tion was “par­adise”. Man­meet would ex­plain to Aguek how he was raised in the vil­lage of his

name, Alisher, in north­ern In­dia, with the be­lief that par­adise can only be found by dy­ing. But Man­meet was now con­vinced par­adise could be found here in a hu­mid brown river city home to floods and sum­mer storms and 2.3 mil­lion peo­ple he con­sid­ered the kind­est, most lov­ing on Earth. The safest place on the planet, Man­meet said. No war. No famine. Only op­por­tu­nity and pur­ple ­jacaranda trees that blos­som in Oc­to­ber. “Par­adise,” Man­meet said. When Aguek ap­proached the burn­ing bus on Oc­to­ber 28 he saw a man ex­it­ing its front doors. That man, he re­alised later, was the al­leged attacker, An­thony O’Dono­hue, in a daze, burns across his body, flames still caught on his clothes.

“I thought he was the driver of the bus,” Aguek says. “I was run­ning to­wards him, try­ing to help him. But then I passed the back door and I heard peo­ple shout­ing. I thought some­one else could help the man who’s out­side and I could help the ones inside. I came to the back door and the only face I saw re­ally clearly was the mother with the baby. She was the one… like… she al­most broke my heart. Very, very close to the door. I tried to push with my hands but it didn’t work. So I kicked and I kicked and on the third kick it did open, about five inches, enough for me to get my hand in there and keep a door open. I was hold­ing it open be­cause it wanted to shut back closed. The mum and the baby got out first, then every­body else.”

As the pas­sen­gers scram­bled past him out of the bus, Aguek looked inside the grow­ing in­ferno, up to the driver’s end. “The whole bus is on fire and I can’t see what’s be­yond the flame,” he says. “I can only see the flame. If there is some­one there or if there is no one there, I can’t tell. But I do know there is… some­thing. There is some­thing burn­ing be­hind that flame. That’s the only way I can de­scribe it.”

He wipes a tear from his eye. “I didn’t know it was Man­meet.” He shakes his head. “I got every­body out,” he says. “But I didn’t save my brother.” Pinky Singh places six bowls of home-cooked In­dian food on her kitchen bench. Mas­ter­ful dhals and lamb cur­ries and pick­led veg­eta­bles. Pinky is pres­i­dent of the Pun­jabi Wel­fare ­As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia. She lives in the vi­brant In­dian com­mu­nity of Stret­ton, also in Bris­bane’s south. The neigh­bour­ing sub­urb is Sun­ny­bank, where her dear friend Man­meet Alisher lived.

He was 29. He’d writ­ten a poem for his fa­ther weeks be­fore his death. It was about his stage and screen dreams; about why he came to Aus­tralia to see his name up in lights and why, one day, he would be well-placed to care for his fa­ther like his fa­ther had once cared for him. “You took me round town on your bi­cy­cle; now I’ll drive you round town in my Audi / You put me in the shade and sat in the scorch­ing heat your­self; now I’ll seat you in air-con­di­tioned com­fort…”

Pinky spoons white rice onto plates for her din­ner guests, Win­ner­jit Goldy and An­gela Owen, coun­cil­lor for this re­gion’s Calam­vale Ward. Pinky met An­gela when their sons, now teenagers, were at the lo­cal kinder­garten to­gether.

Win­ner­jit and Man­meet were best friends, raised to­gether in the same In­dian vil­lage. He’s flown to Bris­bane from In­dia to­day un­der instructions from Man­meet’s par­ents, Ram Sarup Sharma and Kr­ishna Devi, to over­see a me­mo­rial that An­gela and Bris­bane City Coun­cil will un­veil on the an­niver­sary of Man­meet’s death. One year ago, Win­ner­jit was greeted by the grief-stricken faces of An­gela and Pinky when he ar­rived in ­Bris­bane with Man­meet’s brother, Amit, to col­lect Man­meet’s body and piece to­gether the im­pos­si­ble story of how the kind­est hu­man they’d known was burned alive in the heart of what Win­ner­jit calls “Man­meet’s par­adise”.

“He al­ways said that,” Win­ner­jit nods. “He al­ways said, ‘This is my par­adise. This place is heaven for me’. Al­ways. Al­ways. He said, ‘This is a land of jus­tice. This is a land of fair­ness’. Which is why we never ex­pected this could hap­pen in ­Aus­tralia… this cruel, in­hu­mane thing.”

He points across the din­ing ta­ble at An­gela. “This woman was the an­gel for us at that time,” he says. “From that day we met last year to to­day, she sup­ported us in every way. An­gela the an­gel.”

An­gela Owen has long been a key con­duit be­tween the coun­cil and Bris­bane’s bur­geon­ing In­dian com­mu­nity. “I had that sense that Man­meet was part of an ex­tended fam­ily to me,” she says. “I’d seen him on stage singing at a fes­ti­val only two weeks be­fore he died. He had this magic about him, like a mag­net to all these kids who were danc­ing around him.”

“He had very big dreams,” Win­ner­jit says. “He was just driv­ing that bus to pay for the life he dreamed of in en­ter­tain­ment and in so­cial work. He’s a man of dreams and he wanted to re­alise those dreams here. Even as a child, he would say to me, ‘Brother, you will see one day, I will be a big star in Aus­tralia’. He never stopped. Never sad. Never de­pressed. Just al­ways chas­ing a dream.”

The me­mo­rial the trio are plan­ning will speak of Man­meet’s con­tri­bu­tion to his com­mu­nity, his gen­eros­ity to In­dian new­com­ers, his rare and giddy spirit. It will hon­our Aguek Nyok for his courage, as well as the po­lice and fire ser­vices that re­sponded to the scene.

“Those peo­ple ex­pect to see things when they go to work in the morn­ing,” An­gela says. “But they weren’t ex­pect­ing to deal with that kind of tragedy.” She’s talk­ing about what was left of Man­meet. She re­calls find­ing her­self in the ­view­ing room at the fu­neral di­rec­tors’ of­fice, stand­ing be­side com­mu­nity mem­bers who’d asked her to ac­com­pany them through cul­tur­ally im­por­tant view­ings of the de­ceased. “There were a lot of peo­ple who came out of there who were dev­as­tated by the shock of what they’d seen,” she says, clos­ing her eyes, shak­ing her head to change the mem­ory reel in her mind. “That was a very, very dif­fi­cult day.”

The me­mo­rial will tell the story of Man­meet’s life. But there’s a chap­ter of the story that this trio strug­gles with tonight, the chap­ter that keeps wak­ing Man­meet’s par­ents in the mid­dle of the

night. “We know that he’s not here any­more,” Win­ner­jit says. “But we don’t know why he’s not here. From that day one year ago all the way to to­day, we have been think­ing only that: why?” An­thony O’Dono­hue, who’d once worked at Queens­land Rail, lived in a unit in a so­cial ­hous­ing com­plex at 222 Beaudesert Road, near the bus stop. He had pre­vi­ously re­ceived treat­ment from the Metro South Hos­pi­tal and Health Ser­vice. Po­lice al­lege that on that Oc­to­ber day, O’Dono­hue left his unit and walked 200m along the road with the “in­cen­di­ary de­vice” he al­legedly threw into the bus. He was charged with ­Man­meet’s ­mur­der and 11 counts of at­tempted mur­der in re­la­tion to the ­pas­sen­gers.

Thou­sands of In­dian fam­i­lies gath­ered for ­can­dlelit vig­ils across Aus­tralia’s ma­jor ­cities as the har­row­ing story of Man­meet Alisher’s death spread across the world. In­dian Prime ­Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi phoned Mal­colm Turn­bull to ex­press how trou­bled he was by the news. Two words turned in the grow­ing story’s un­der­tow: hate crime. In­dia’s ­Hin­dus­tan Times re­ported “a sense of con­cern be­ing felt in In­dia over the re­cent bru­tal killing of Mr Man­meet Alisher”. The ­Wash­ing­ton Post didn’t mince words in its head­line: “A beloved In­dian bus driver was set on fire in Aus­tralia. His fam­ily blames racism.”

Amit Alisher was asked by Aus­tralian me­dia if he sus­pected the crime was racially mo­ti­vated. “We sus­pect that it may be,” he said. “We would like to see due process. We have faith in the ­Aus­tralian sys­tem.”

In­di­ans across the world turned to Face­book. “It is a hum­ble re­quest and ap­peal to all the ­Pun­jabis liv­ing in and out of Aus­tralia to de­mand jus­tice for Man­meet,” read the ‘RIP Man­meet Alisher’ page. “Make sure that the mur­derer must be hanged till death or burnt alive. Don’t let the Aus­tralian Govt leave him free by just declar­ing him men­tally sick…”

In her liv­ing room, Pinky Singh re­calls the com­po­sure that Win­ner­jit – a trained so­cial worker in In­dia – showed in fronting Aus­tralian and in­ter­na­tional me­dia to cool a global racial de­bate that had rapidly reached boil­ing point. “He was the bridge be­tween Aus­tralia and the In­dian gov­ern­ment,” she says. “He had to an­swer all the ques­tions to calm it down, all the feel­ing in the tem­ples and all the ques­tions that were com­ing from the com­mu­nity. He al­ways said to the ­com­mu­nity, ‘Jus­tice will be there’.”

But one year on, Man­meet’s fam­ily still waits for jus­tice, still longs for an­swers. “So many peo­ple around the world are still look­ing for these things,” Win­ner­jit says. “The whole world is look­ing. This is a black spot on Aus­tralia.”

Over din­ner, he phones Man­meet’s brother Amit back in In­dia. He trans­lates a ques­tion from me into Amit’s na­tive tongue: “How has the fam­ily moved on from Oc­to­ber 28, 2016?” “We haven’t,” Amit says flatly. “We’re still there.” Days af­ter Man­meet’s death, the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment or­dered an in­de­pen­dent in­quiry into the health care pre­vi­ously given to O’Dono­hue. It said a foren­sic doc­tor, Pro­fes­sor Paul Mullen, would ­con­duct an eight-week in­quiry that would pro­vide an­swers for Man­meet’s fam­ily.

In Jan­uary, the Bris­bane Mag­is­trates Court heard the charges against O’Dono­hue would be trans­ferred to a sep­a­rate com­plex branch of the court sys­tem. The Queens­land Gov­ern­ment now says that as the O’Dono­hue mat­ter re­mains be­fore the courts, Mullen’s in­quiry will not be made pub­lic for the fore­see­able fu­ture. “The ad­vice we have is that the re­lease of the [in­quiry] re­port, ei­ther wholly or in part, would po­ten­tially prej­u­dice the trial,” says a se­nior gov­ern­ment min­is­ter. “I can un­der­stand the fam­ily’s very strong de­sire to get as much in­for­ma­tion as they can to help them un­der­stand how this tragedy hap­pened… It’s only nat­u­ral that they want an­swers to a range of ques­tions, and that they are ­frus­trated when those an­swers aren’t forth­com­ing. If this re­port was able to be pro­vided to the fam­ily, that would have hap­pened al­ready.”

State Op­po­si­tion Leader Tim Ni­cholls says the case re­flects wider is­sues of trans­parency in the gov­ern­ment. “This sick­en­ing act rocked our ­com­mu­nity and the fam­ily de­serves an­swers,” he says. “How can Queens­lan­ders have con­fi­dence in the sys­tem when a veil of se­crecy is used to hide its fail­ings?”

“We just want to know why it hap­pened to Man­meet and who was re­spon­si­ble for that?” Win­ner­jit says. “The Queens­land Gov­ern­ment? Or the po­lice? An­other per­son? If a per­son is men­tally sick, how does he know this is the ­chem­i­cal used for a per­son to…” He trails off, shakes his head. Tears welling in his eyes.

“I mean… 90 sec­onds. It took Man­meet 90 sec­onds to die. Why? And we care for every hu­man – every hu­man is very im­por­tant for us – but why not other ones along that road? There were a lot of other peo­ple on that walk. Why this In­dian guy? Why the bus driver? Why Man­meet?” The unit com­plex at 222 Beaudesert Road is an un­set­tling place. Cramped, multi-sto­ried shoe­box apart­ments echo­ing with drunken wails and dis­putes. A man in his 30s stands in his door­way; he iden­ti­fies him­self by his mid­dle name, Daw­son. A long bat­tle with PTSD stem­ming from a car ac­ci­dent saw him jour­ney through Queens­land’s men­tal health sys­tem, end­ing up here in “tran­si­tional hous­ing” through Com­pass Hous­ing Ser­vices.

“I’ve got a pis­shead down­stairs,” he says, ­point­ing across the com­plex. In one unit, he says, is a drug dealer. There are two women “who bash each other full time” in an­other. “I want to get outta here. I’ve got this flimsy lock on my door and some­one tried to break into to my unit. It scares me. I’ve gone to Com­pass about all these prob­lems, how no­body gets along here. They think this sit­u­a­tion is safe. It’s not safe. Peo­ple are try­ing to change their lives but they’re dumped here. You try and get bet­ter and you can’t. The amount of times I’ve wanted to kill my­self be­cause of all this shit. It’s de­press­ing.”

Photography Jus­tine Walpole

Haunted: Aguek Nyok

Com­mu­nity: Pinky Singh; be­low, Man­meet Alisher

Ques­tions: An­gela Owen; be­low, Win­ner­jit Goldy

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