Vicar's son returns from conflict-stricken South Sudan in time for Christmas

(Photo: Keith Blundy)Charity worker Ben Bartlett flees conflict in Africa to be with his family over Christmas

The son of a Durham vicar has escaped worsening conflict in South Sudan in time to spend Christmas with his family.

Ben Bartlett tried to leave on four separate occasions and was successful after five days of trying to flee the heavy fighting in South Sudan's capital, Juba.

South Sudan has been pushed to the brink of civil war after a failed coup and fighting has escalated in recent weeks.

Ben is a project support officer with the development agency, Tearfund, and the son of the Reverend Canon Dr Alan Bartlett, Vicar of St Giles' and Priest in Charge of St Mary's Sherburn and St Cuthbert's Shadforth.

He has been in South Sudan since October, where he has been working on clean water and sanitation projects.

However, the deteriorating situation has forced him and colleagues to return because of fighting near the Tearfund compound, and he finally arrived at Newcastle Airport on 21 December to the relief of his parents.

He had been due to fly home on last week for Christmas leave but was woken on the Sunday before to the sound of heavy weapons near the 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. Then last Thursday just 30 mins before he was due to leave an incoming plane crashed on the runway and further flights were cancelled.

Ben has tasted danger while serving in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo but says of South Sudan, "This is the scariest experience I have had yet."

Alan said: "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."