9th January 2000

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Madness on millennium morning

By Udena R.Attygalle

The gunshot in Teldeniya, 17 km away from Kandy, went unnoticed amidst the noise of the many exploding firecrackers, heralding the new millennium. But for the revellers at Digana Village Resort it was a rude awakening. That single shot from a police T-56 weapon, just an hour after midnight killed two and injured another in a tragic turn to the evening's celebrations.

Sameera AtapattuSameera Atapattu (20) and Nimesh Rambukwella, (31) both succumbed to their injuries that day. Nilmini Gunaweera was shot in the hand.

Sameera had just started working as a computer instructor after leaving Trinity College, Kandy . A fine swimmer, this young man was always ready to help others. His brother Sanka recalled Sameera "taking all his old clothes in a bag while going to town and distributing them to the needy." The tearful brother added, "I used to tease him saying that very soon all the beggars in town will be in your clothes."

Nimesh RambukwellaNimesh Rambukwella who worked as a ship navigator was to leave for Japan on January 10th to join his father. But it was not to be.

The millennium dinner dance, during which the tragedy occurred had been organized by the Interact club of St. Sylvester's College, Kandy at the Digana village resort in Teldeniya. Two hundred tickets each priced at Rs 500 were printed. With only around 100 tickets being sold by the 31st, the rest were to be issued at the entrance by the Interactors.

Modarage NandasiriThe Manager of the resort, Modarage Nandasiri said they were asked to provide meals only for around 100- 125 people. Yet with there being a rush on ticket sales at the gate by around 10 p.m. there were about 200 guests at the dinner dance. Mr. Nandasiri claims that by midnight, the hotel had provided meals for 175 people, 75 in excess of the amount originally ordered.

But trouble had started brewing later, with some guests questioning the manager as to why there was a shortage of food. The manager, had assured them that in an hour's time, all would be taken care of. Satisfied, the guests went back to partying.

According to IP W.R.A.P Sugathadasa, the police officer in charge of the mobile unit that day, they had visited the resort about four times that day on their usual mobile patrol at the request of the OIC, Teldeniya S.B Wickremasinghe.

Said the OIC, "I received a request from the Interactors asking for a police guard for the dinner dance, but I refused." Later he had received a request from SSP Bandula Navarathne in Kandy, after which he had asked the mobile patrol to check on the resort.

At about 12.15 a.m. on their fourth visit, IP Sugathadasa says a group of revellers had alerted the police who had parked their jeep near the gate that there was trouble inside.

The IP along with two sergeants, a constable and a security assistant (SA) had gone to investigate. There they had witnessed a brawl and had rushed to sort it out.

But the huge crowd had been too much for them. According to the IP, a sergeant and the SA who were in the jeep had then come towards the resort to check why the other policemen were getting late.

On seeing the situation the sergeant who was carrying a T-56 weapon had handed it to the SA and rushed to help his colleagues asking the SA to stay behind.

It was a shot a few minutes afterwards that told them that the weapon had gone off.

According to OIC Wickremasinghe the first to have been shot was Nimesh who had staggered a few feet towards the resort's reception before falling in a bloody pool.

The same bullet also hit Sameera and later injured the hand of Nilmini Gunaweera. A dent in the panelling of the French windows of the dance floor indicated the spot where the bullet had ricocheted off in another direction.

Renald Rasaiah, the guest DJ recalled that the police had been at the back of the hall most of the time. The trouble had started when there had been a shortage of food with the sudden influx of a large number of guests around 11.30 p.m.

The management, he said, had peacefully resolved the problem, but a few minutes later there had been another argument between two friends.

While the police intervened, Renald had spotted an SA who having got the weapon from the sergeant had fired to his left.

According to Renald, at that time the SA was standing in a clear area with no people close at hand. The sergeant had tried to grab the weapon but the SA had resisted. It was only after the burly IP Sugathadasa had intervened that the weapon was taken away from the SA.

IP Sugathadasa meanwhile, claimed that some of the policemen had been badly bruised by the unruly crowd.

Dilan Weerasekera, a friend of Nimesh had been among those who carried Nimesh out after seeing him on the floor. Dilan says, "Nobody was willing to give us a vehicle to take Nimesh and Sameera to hospital." In the end it had been the police vehicle that had taken the two to the Teldeniya Hospital. Dilan added that his friend was dead even as they got into the jeep.

Herath Mudiyanselage Wanasinghe Bandara, the SA who had fired the T-56 weapon has been remanded till the 14th. According to ASP Teldeniya J.C. Proctor the police hope to send the bullet and cartridge case to the Government Analyst. The actions of the rest of the police team that day will also be investigated. Whatever the outcome of the investigations, two young lives have been cruelly snuffed out in a night that began as one of joyous anticipation.

A Sri Lankan New Year?

The Digana village tragedy where a reserve cop allegedly opened fire at new year revellers, resulted in two killings, but lesser altercations result in hospitalization etc., with similar repercussions. What's the psychology of New Year's fights, (the Digana incident) and similar flare-ups that take place at social gatherings?

Last year, a lot of such flare - ups occurred in Colombo nightspots for instance, at least some of which have been attributed to the widespread use of a drug called "Angel's Dust''. Apparently, the drug, taken for mood enhancement, gives rise to violent tendencies among the users. Speed and other drugs are also said to be in circulation among some of Colombo's jet setters, giving rise to these kinds of unnecessary fights and conflagrations.

The Digana incident, which occurred a few hours past the dawn of the new century was particularly unfortunate as it led to the deaths of two very young people, but, any perusal of hospital bed-head tickets will tell that lesser incidents occur in other parts of the country but with similar antecedents.

Though the new year that dawned was relatively peaceful, in Mt. Lavinia for instance a West German went berserk and pounced on guests at a beach gathering, until he was apprehended and pummelled by some party - goers. The West German was acting with the connivance of some locals who were seen to be bragging of alleged forces credentials.

Security had been beefed up at Hotel Sapphire for instance, where last year, a security guard went haywire and killed a wedding reveller who may have been a tad inebriated, but had not caused any provocation that should have been punished by death. Though statistics the world over said that the dawn of the New Year was "quite peaceful'' it is also unfortunate that the trend was not duplicated in Sri Lanka, which probably recorded the only New Year associated deaths.

Apart from Angel's Dust, however, the cause may be that there is a gung ho attitude, even though at the said beach party for instance at Mt. Lavina hotel, there were body checks carried out for concealed weapons. Some of these conflagrations are alcohol related, others are due to the psychology of "mindless violence'' that has created a culture of revelry related brawls in the country.

The intervention of police also can have drastic repercussions, as the Digana incidents show. But, similar to vigilance over the lighting of crackers, social vigilance over elements who cause altercations at night- spots and social gatherings has to be enhanced, especially at times of general festivity such as the New Year season.

But, "party violence'' has also been glamorized to some extent, according to an official of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board. Says he that the glamorization could be due to books, for instance, a recent series about the Burghers, which depicted violence as some sort of social novelty.

This official also confirms that the use of mood enhancing drugs has to be checked, even though he does not know whether the drugs going around at nightspots are Angel's Dust or Speed or whatever.

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