A Sri Lankan family's decade-long dream to visit Sovereign Hill turned into a nightmare in the blink of an eye when they were violently attacked by a gang in central Ballarat.
Thusitha Nugagahakumbura and his wife Neelanthi Munasinghe had wanted to visit the Ballarat outdoor museum since they emigrated to Australia 10 years ago.
After arriving in the city a day earlier, the young family were preparing to leave Ballarat on October 8, 2023, when they were confronted by a gang of hoodlums.
While parked on Little Bridge Street near Peel Street South that afternoon, the couple was helping their daughter Anuli, who has complex disabilities into their car, when a teenager threw a metal chain at them.
The teenager then repeatedly punched Mr Nugagahakumbura when he tried to protect his daughter.
A group of aggressors, including about five teenagers and several adults, crowded around the distressed family and yelled racist abuse at them.
Mr Nugagahakumbura's 12-year-old daughter is blind and in a wheelchair. It takes them a long time to get her into their car.
"We were just innocent civilians, and then all of a sudden, these people just threw a metallic chain towards my daughter's face," Mr Nugagahakumbura said.
"Then this person came and started to bash me, and then I shouted 'don't touch me', and he just pushed me from my shoulders and then started bashing me in my chest."
Owing to their daughter's disabilities, it was the family's first trip away since the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, and the experience has made them question whether they could go away together again.
I had a bit of respect for police, but during this process I've lost everything I had for Victoria Police, and I'm not feeling that I'll be safe in their hands anymore.- Thusitha Nugagahakumbura
Mr Nugagahakumbura's shoulder was recovering from an injury at the time of the attack. He has experienced increased pain since, while the entire family has been feeling traumatised after the incident.
"It took a few days for us to get [back] into our normal life, and all of a sudden, I'm getting flashes from time to time and it's giving me shocks for several days," Mr Nugagahakumbura said.
"That's the situation, it's really bad, why should we suffer like that?"
While being attacked, Mr Nugagahakumbura said he called triple-zero to receive assistance, but when he got through to an operator, he was told police couldn't come and he should go to the station to make a statement.
Victoria Police told The Courier officers did attend the scene, but not until the offenders and family had departed.
Mr Nugagahakumbura said the group that assaulted him were still nearby when he spoke to Ballarat police, and the delay in helping them and the subsequent investigation had caused him to lose confidence in law enforcement.
He said he feared if the situation had escalated, his family would have been in serious danger, and they were only saved because bystanders came to their aid.
"I had a bit of respect for police, but during this process I've lost everything I had for Victoria Police, and I'm not feeling that I'll be safe in their hands anymore," he said.
"They have to have a kind of mechanism to respond to urgent matters right?"
Mr Nugagahakumbura said they had provided the police with a lot of information about the gang, including descriptions, names that were provided by witnesses, as well as the bus they got on when they left the scene, but despite this police had been unable to locate their attackers.
"If at least police had come to the place, and they had given us confidence to settle our minds, then at least [I would think] it would not happen again, someone needs to take action," he said.
We thought they were going to bash us, they were actually circling us, it was like a pack of hyenas, I've never seen anything like it.- Kate Skinner
At the time of the attack, Kate Skinner was walking through Ballarat central with her daughter, Indy, when they saw the Nugagahakumbura-Munasinghe family being confronted by the group.
"There was one kid who had, I couldn't see what it was, but it looked like some sort of chain and he was whipping the disabled girl in the face with it," Indy Skinner said.
Kate Skinner said they ran to the scene and helped fend off the attackers, while the family tried to get their daughter in the car.
"It was a disgrace, I've never been so disgusted in my community as what I was that day," Ms Skinner said.
"I don't even understand why they would have done that to that little girl, I don't get it."
Ms Skinner said the group was acting aggressively, even after the assault finished.
"We thought they were going to bash us, they were actually circling us, it was like a pack of hyenas, I've never seen anything like it," she said.
"If we hadn't have been there, that family would have been beaten bad."
"He (the police officer) just said to them 'get in your car and come and see us at the station and give us a statement if you like'," she said.
Now, Ms Skinner said she was concerned the family would tell others not to come back to Ballarat because of racist attacks.
Do we feel like going to Ballarat again? No.- Thusitha Nugagahakumbura
"Do we feel like going to Ballarat again? No," Mr Nugagahakumbura said.
"My wife wanted to go there [Ballarat] for a long time, but we couldn't manage it, but the first time we came then this is our experience."
ALSO IN THE NEWS:
In a statement, Victoria Police said the investigation was still ongoing, and they urged anyone who witnessed the incident or with information to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
Sign-up for The Courier's news alerts direct to your inbox. Select Breaking News Alerts in My Newsletters & Alerts in your account preference centre.