A tender moment between an Australian soldier and a local East Timorese boy captured against the backdrop of brutality and destruction was immortalised in a photograph 25 years ago.

The photograph, featuring former soldier Sergeant Martin Ryan, 4RAR (Commando), and a young boy named Leandro, has become an iconic symbol of Australia’s contribution to the International Force East Timor (INTERFET).

INTERFET began deploying in September 1999, with about 5000 of the 10,000-strong INTERFET Australian military personnel.

As part of RSL Victoria’s initiative to highlight the work of peacekeepers throughout Australia’s history, the photo featured on this year’s Australian Peacekeepers ANZAC Appeal badge.

The Australian Peacekeepers ANZAC Appeal badge.
The Australian Peacekeepers ANZAC Appeal badge.

In an unusual twist, Martin contacted RSL Victoria to share his story.

As Martin and the Australian Defence Force photographer Sergeant Gary Ramic walked through the battered streets of Suai, southwest of the capital Dili, they stumbled across a graffitied wall with the words “We love you INTERFET”.

It set the perfect scene for the impromptu shot, as the little boy named Leandro was walking back down into Suai having taken shelter from the unfolding violence and lawlessness in the mountains.

"Most of the photos you see, the kids are looking up at the soldiers. I don’t know why, but I put my weapon behind me, knelt next to him and shook his hand."

Sergeant Martin Ryan

All these years later, Martin has been able to locate Leandro with the help of a contact in East Timor. Thanks to veteran wellbeing program Timor Awakening, Martin will travel there later this year with his eldest son.

“He’s the one that was most aware when I was away…so this is a sort of a ‘come on Nick, come over and see something that we did, something that we succeeded in.”

The reunion with Leandro is expected to be understandably emotional.

“It’s been so much time,” Martin said with his voice wavering.

“I just didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think about it. That was a good point of the tour, you know, meeting the kids…”

When he met Leandro all those years ago, it was a moment of lightness among the unfolding tragedy surrounding him. In the weeks and months after the Suai Church Massacre, which saw nearly 200 people killed inside the church, Martin witnessed confronting scenes.

"Obviously, we were coming across a lot of victims of the militia...bodies, finding children’s jewellery, bones. When the villagers came back, they searched the local swamps and brought the remains of family back up."

Sergeant Martin Ryan

At some point, Martin’s coping mechanism kicked in.

“I have a hard time remembering detail because I basically blanked everything out so I could just keep operating.”

The effects of Martin’s deployments, including his multiple deployments to East Timor and Afghanistan, caused significant mental health struggles, which contributed to his decision to discharge.

Sergeant Martin Ryan.

“I was pretty messed up at that stage…I wasn’t sleeping. Signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder began to show.”

After serving full-time for 32 years, Martin discharged and found himself in as a civilian working in the corporate world. More recently, he moved to Disaster Relief Australia as the National Training Manager.

“To be honest, even the worst day I had in the military I’d go back and do it all over again, but not sure my wife would appreciate it.”

He said he put his family through a lot of stress and sleepless nights.

“They don’t know where we are, they don’t know what we’re doing. My wife had to give up her job on numerous occasions because of what I was doing.”

He remembers coming home from his deployments, disrupting the routine and heading off again.

“I owe my wife a lot.”

Through it all, Martin has not lost his sense of humour or his warmth. The photograph has popped up around and about over the years, often when Martin least expects it.

“I’m glad the photo is useful; it’s raising funds and awareness and I’m thankful you got the prettiest guy in INTERFET on there!”