Theogene Ngamije was just a boy when he thought his life was over. He’d been separated from his parents in a refugee camp in war-torn Rwanda in 1994, but the kindness of an Australian peacekeeper gave him hope when he needed it most.
Now, 23 years later, Ngamije is a private in the Australian army.
“No day was easy, it was hard. I was always scared, hungry and intimidated,” Ngamije said at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of Australian involvement in peacekeeping at the Australian War Memorial on Wednesday. “I wished there was another planet on which I could make a living. I thought that was the end of my life.”
Growing up in a refugee camp, Ngamije said he had “no future direction or any hope of a better life”, but that destiny and luck never left his side.
“On the good day, a day I can call being born again, a tall Australian soldier took a knee and offered me a piece of biscuit and Australian flag patch from his uniform. That kindness came when I needed it most,” he said.
“It is stuck on my heart and it feels like it was only yesterday. He saved my life and many other children who were displaced at that time. There are no words that can describe how thankful I was and remain even to this hour.”
In January 2011, Ngamije arrived in Australia with his uncle and his family.
“Australia recognised me, gave me hope and a home,” he said. “The opportunities I had were unlimited.”
Ngamije began to think of ways in which he could “pay back … this beautiful nation” and “specifically a peacekeeping soldier that helped me”.
He decided the best way was to join the army, and after a long wait for citizenship, enlisted in the Australian army on the 6th of February this year.
“I pray that someday I get to change someone else’s life,” Ngamije said.
“I chose to enlist in the army due to the help, inspiration and unforgettable rescue I received from that Australian soldier. I also wanted to pay back this wonderful community for everything they gave me.
“To the peacekeeping soldier that changed my life, from deep down in my heart I thank you. I shall forever be grateful and keep carrying your load as a soldier.”
Australia first sent military observers on a United Nations Consular Commission to Indonesia in September 1947, and since then has had tens of thousands of military and civilian operatives on station around the world.
The anniversary was marked by a special ceremony at the Memorial commemorating the 16 Australian peacekeepers who have been killed on duty.
Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson said the anniversary highlighted another side of the Australian military experience, one of good will and development that continues to change and adapt as the 21st century progresses.
“Peacekeepers, and the work they have done and continue to do in Australia’s name, are vital facets of the story we tell at the Memorial,” he said.
“It is a story of war but also a story of compassion, service and mateship. It includes interactions with our friends and neighbours during times of trouble and also of peace.”
But for Theogene Ngamije it means so much more. And he will be forever grateful to the unknown Australian peacekeeper whose kindness changed his life.
Rwanda (UNAMIR), 1993 - 1996