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Home from the conflict zone for Christmas

A Durham vicar and his wife are thankful for the safe return of their 23-year-old son from the conflict in Southern Sudan ...

A Durham vicar’s son has escaped from the clutches of worsening conflict and crisis in Southern Sudan to return to his family in time for Christmas.

Ben Bartlett, son of the Revd Canon Dr Alan Bartlett, Vicar of St Giles' (Gilesgate) and Priest in Charge of St Mary's Sherburn and St Cuthbert's Shadforth, arrived at Newcastle Airport on Saturday (21 December) after five days of trying to flee the heavy fighting in South Sudan’s Capital Juba, as the political situation in the country worsened this week.

Amidst growing fears of the country plunging into civil war following what is being called a failed coup by political opponents in the Eastern African country, Ben tried on four separate occasions to leave the country with Tearfund charity colleagues, each time being thwarted at the last minute by a catalogue of unexpected turns and twists.

Ben is a Project Support Officer with the Tearfund Christian relief and development agency in South Sudan. He graduated in September with an MA in Post-war reconstruction from York University and went out in October to work on clean water and sanitation projects.

He was due to fly home on Tuesday (17 December) for Christmas leave but was woken on Sunday (15 December) night to the sound of heavy weapons near the Tearfund compound in Juba. He said : “I couldn't understand what was happening, I was woken by the sound of heavy gunfire and shelling, and buildings were shaking from the vibrations of tank and mortar fire.”

Dad Alan said: “The first we knew of this was talking with him on Skype on Monday morning with the sound of machine gun fire in the background. Very scary for him and for us!”

Ben and his colleagues spent a day hunkered down in their compound – eating emergency rations of luncheon meat and tinned pineapple – before starting to try to get out on the Wednesday. The airport opened and then closed again and flights were frequently cancelled. Worse, on the Thursday just 30 mins before he was due to leave, an incoming plane crashed on the runway and further flights were cancelled.

Ben, who has already served in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is used to dangerous places but he said: “This is the scariest experience I have had yet.”

Alan added: ”It has been very tough going carol singing, celebrating Christmas with our schools, all the while worrying about his safety – and that of many of friends in South Sudan.

“But Christmas reminds us that God lives in this fragile world with us and shares all we go through. The love and prayers of many friends have got us through. We hope and pray that peace will soon be restored and South Sudan resume its progress.”

Mum Helen said: “It’s been so hard, to nearly get him out twice and then something go wrong. When he came through those arrivals doors at the airport it was amazing.

 “God just holds you in everything and He has certainly held us this last week and brought Ben home to us for Christmas.”

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