A biscuit and an Aussie flag: A Rwandan refugee's quest to thank Digger

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It was an act of kindness from a Digger that would bring a Rwandan refugee to Australia to follow in his footsteps.

A hungry seven-year-old boy first met the Australian soldier in a refugee camp in Rwanda in 1994.

Amid the bombs dropping and disaster unfolding, the soldier, acting as a peacekeeper, leant down to offer the child a biscuit and the patch of an Australian flag.

It was an act that Theogene Ngamije never forgot.

And, in 2017, he is now a soldier with the Australian army.

“When I got into Australia I just wanted to step in his foot[steps] - serve as a soldier as well,” Private Ngamije told SBS World News.

Private Ngamije arrived in 2011 and had to wait years for citizenship to be able to enlist, which he successfully did in February.

He said he wants to “pay back” the country that helped saved his life.

“There were bombings going on, everyone was running everywhere, [the soldier] gave me a biscuit and a patch … and he took me to a safe place - myself and other kids. It was amazing,” he said.

“It meant a lot to me and, up to now, I still remember it. Can't forget it.”

Private Ngamije has been trying to track down the peacekeeper but so far has been unsuccessful.

But he knows exactly what he’d say if he ever saw him again.

“I would thank him for everything he has done and let him know that I'm doing what he left behind, being a soldier.”

Peacekeepers honoured

On Thursday, Private Ngamije was among dozens who attended a ceremony in Canberra to mark 70 years since Australian peacekeeping missions began.

A new memorial dedicated to more than 80,000 Australian peacekeepers – military, police and civilian - was unveiled on Anzac Parade near the Australian War Memorial.

It’s a long-awaited tribute for those who’ve been calling for such a memorial for the past decade.

The two black monoliths, each six metres high, include a commemorative beam which will list all Australian peacekeeping missions.

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove said the memorial was the nation’s thank you to those servicemen and women.

“In their blue berets, peace keepers are a symbol of hope. They save lives and change lives. They restore order and bring security and stability.

“Peace keepers do all this not in the name of conquests or self-aggrandisement, nor in the name of parochial self interest. They do it, simply, in the name of compassion and humanity, in the name of what is right.”

A peacekeeper’s story

David Savage, an ex-stabilisation advisor with the former AusAid, was injured in Afghanistan in 2012 when a 12-year-old boy detonated a suicide bomb near his vehicle.

He is now in a wheelchair.

“I just finished a meeting with the district governor and I was returning to the military base where I was living with my security detachment,” Mr Savage recalled.

“We were about 70 metres from the front gate when a 12-year-old child came into the patrol behind me and he had a suicide vest on underneath his robes. When he was about three metres [away] he detonated the device.

“Myself and three of the soldiers that were near me were critically wounded.”

David Savage, former Afghanistan aid worker
David Savage, former Afghanistan aid worker
SBS World News

Mr Savage said he's proud of the memorial, which for him is about changing lives and countries without weapons.

He said it’s important to raise awareness in the community so that schoolchildren know the role of not just the military and police but the civilian contribution to peacekeeping too.

“So that they don’t just go to war and fight battles,” he said.

“So that they go unarmed to different conflicts and stand between the different warring factions to save people to help bring peace, or keep the peace, so that people can have a much better life.”

As for the child who wounded him, Mr Savage feels sad thinking about him.

“Because a 12-year-old child doesn’t form the intent to do that, so he was obviously very tricked or brainwashed.”

Mr Savage is proud of the missions he’s been involved in, most notably the independence of East Timor.

“When you go back and you see the change that's happened where people can live their life in a democratically elected country and be happy, that makes everything so worthwhile,” he said.

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