Count­less ques­tions for bus hero who saved 11 souls but couldn’t save his ‘brother’

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - TRENT DALTON THE WEEK­END AUS­TRALIAN MAGAZINE P28

Raw and weary from a long Fri­day night shift, Bris­bane taxi driver Aguek Nyok wept as he told the story he was too trau­ma­tised to tell a year ago when a Moorooka bus fire claimed the life of beloved In­dian bus driver Man­meet Alisher.

It was the story be­neath the story, the one about how well Aguek — the South Su­danese refugee hero who saved the lives of at least 11 peo­ple last Oc­to­ber — knew Man­meet, the one man our hero could not save. A tale of two cab­bies who’d talk for hours in the taxi hold­ing grid of Bris­bane Air­port about fam­ily and for­tune; about how lucky they were that God saw fit to place them among the good peo­ple of Bris­bane, Queens­land, Aus­tralia.

“Par­adise,” Man­meet would call it. Heaven on earth.

It was 9.03am on Oc­to­ber 28, 2016, when a bus pas­sen­ger named An­thony O’Dono­hue al­legedly boarded bus S-1980 at the Moor­vale bus stop on Beaudesert Road, Moorooka, and threw an “in­cen­di­ary de­vice” at a de­fence­less bus driver, so­cial worker, ac­tor and singer named Man­meet, burn­ing him alive and trap­ping 11 pas­sen­gers in­side the fire­ball bus.

“Hate crime!” roared fu­ri­ous In­di­ans across Aus­tralia and the world. The story made head­lines in news­pa­pers in­clud­ing The Hindustan Times and The Wash­ing­ton Post. “His fam­ily blames racism,” read a Wash­ing­ton Post head­line.

As thou­sands of In­dian fam­i­lies across Bris­bane and Aus­tralia gath­ered for can­dlelit vig­ils, In­dia’s Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi phoned Malcolm Turn­bull to ex­press con­cern for the wel­fare of In­di­ans in Aus­tralia.

The story of the al­leged crime was al­ways fol­lowed by the story of Aguek, the ran­dom cab­bie in the right place at the right time who ran to the bus as oth­ers ran from it, giv­ing three karate kicks he’d honed in af­ter-work karate lessons against the jammed rear bus doors, where a trapped mother and her baby was scream­ing. But those sto­ries didn’t men­tion the beau­ti­ful and deep con­nec­tion between brave saviour and tragic vic­tim, between two cab­bie mates who came to call each other “brother”.

“I came to the back door and the only face I saw re­ally clearly was the mother with the baby,” Aguek re­calls.

“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 the door open be­cause it wanted to shut back closed. The mum and the baby got out first, then ev­ery­body else.”

As the pas­sen­gers es­caped, Aguek looked in­side the es­ca­lat­ing in­ferno, up to the driver’s end where a wall of flame was en­gulf­ing the bus.

“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 … some­thing. I didn’t know it was Man­meet. I got ev­ery­body out. But I didn’t save my brother.”

That some­thing he saw burn­ing still haunts him. He still thinks about it in the quiet lulls of a cab shift. He tries to shake that mem­ory off. “I don’t want it to get in­side me,” he says. But he knows that some­times he’s pow­er­less to stop it. It’s like some­thing Man­meet’s brother, Amit Alisher, told The Week­end Aus­tralian. “We are in­side the same pain, al­ways,” he said.

One year on, Man­meet’s fam­ily, not to men­tion Aus­tralia’s wider In­dian com­mu­nity, en­dure an ag­o­nis­ing wait for an­swers to the sim­plest ques­tions about what ex­actly hap­pened that day in the most har­mo­nious and mul­ti­cul­tural com­mu­nity in Bris­bane, as crim­i­nal charges against An­thony O’Dono­hue pro­ceed through Queens­land’s com­plex le­gal sys­tem.

“The whole world is look­ing,” said Man­meet’s best friend, Win­ner­jit Goldy, who calls the at­tack a “black spot” on Aus­tralia.

“Why this In­dian guy? Why the bus driver? Why Man­meet?”

Man­meet

Aguek

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