For many in Melbourne, groups of dangerous, criminal gangs are causing trouble within local communities. Despite irrefutable proof of the violence unleashed on communities, police have denied African gangs even existed for a long time.
Serious crimes like home invasions, violent armed robberies, vicious assaults and lawless rampages have been committed. Many of the young criminals are from the war-torn African country of South Sudan.
Melbourne widow Elaine French is a broken woman. She’s been traumatised by two horrific attacks on her and her workmates – both by armed young Sudanese men.
“It’s ruined my life,” Elaine told Sunday Night’s Alex Cullen. “I don’t have a life any more. From being a very active woman, going to work, playing golf, going out and enjoying myself. I don’t do any of that any more.”
Just before 11am on October 25, 2016, Elaine was working on the shop floor of a jewellery store in Melbourne’s upmarket Toorak when the first attack occurred.
“I had my head down into the computer,” she recalls. “Like a monster he was, with dark clothes on and a mask across his face and a gun at my head and he said, ‘Take me to the safe.’ I was dumfounded. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do anything. He’s pushed the gun into my throat and he said, ‘If you don’t move I’ll kill you dead.”
As Elaine cowered in the office, the shop manager, Stevan, confronted the armed attackers – and in an extraordinary moment of bravery, he shouted at them to stop and shoved them out onto the street.
Elaine was off work for eleven weeks. She decided to return, but only part time. Three hours into her first shift, all Elaine’s fears came rushing back.
“I was out in the back office and I said to Stevan, ‘Here they are again.’ I was beside myself. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t help Stevan. I could see Stevan was bleeding behind the ear. I was frozen to the spot in my office where I was at the back. I said, ‘Oh please god, help me.’”
A year later and Elaine is still badly traumatised from not one but two shocking attacks – less than three months apart.
What infuriates so many people like Elaine is that for a long time, politicians and police refused to acknowledge African gangs even existed, let alone were responsible for an alarming surge in violent crime.
Whether or not police want to use the word “gang”, after numerous bashings, riots and armed robberies, it’s clear who they are targeting with a new operation called Taskforce Wayward.
Late on a Saturday night at Sunshine Police Station, Senior Sergeant Brett Kahan is leading the crackdown on Melbourne’s youth crime. Hitting the streets, part of the job is keeping a tight rein on offenders who are on bail and under strict, court-ordered curfews: they must stay home with their families at night.
29-year-old rap musician and ex-criminal Torit Chol Bol knows the inside walls of Australian jails very well. His story is a common one among south Sudanese refugees. Aged just 4, he witnessed the horrors of the Sudanese civil war first hand. His family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya and, in 2004, they arrived in Australia.
“It was very new for us,” Torit remembers. “Culture shock, people were saying, ‘Who are these people, go back to your country.’ People were calling us bad stuff. First I just left it alone, but when I got hit in the face, that was it. That set it off.”
That was the beginning of a downward spiral for Torit. At a party he got in a fight and went on a rampage through the house. More violent crimes followed, and Torit spent three years in jail. He says that time behind bars has helped turn his life around.
Now Torit spends his time recording songs so he can share what he’s been through, and hopes his words will steer South Sudanese youth away from crime.
“If I could stop a youngster from hurting someone or from hurting himself, herself from going to jail… because I had messed up, getting my parole, getting locked up, a lot of wasted time.”
Reporter: Alex Cullen
Producers: Stephen Rice, Mick O’Donnell