Charity worker home safe in time for Christmas

The Northern Echo: Ben Bartlett Ben Bartlett

A CHARITY worker has escaped the worsening conflict and crisis in Southern Sudan to return to his family in time for Christmas.

Ben Bartlett, 23, from Durham City, arrived at Newcastle Airport on Saturday after five days of trying to flee heavy fighting in the capital, Juba.

There are fears the country is plunging into civil war following what is being called a failed coup by political opponents in the Eastern African country.

Mr Bartlett tried on four separate occasions to leave the country with colleagues, each time being thwarted at the last minute by a catalogue of unexpected twists and turns.

Mr Bartlett, a project support officer with the Tearfund, a Christian relief and development agency, 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 Christmas Eve but was woken last Sunday night to the sound of gunfire 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.”

The charity workers hunkered down in their compound, eating emergency rations of luncheon meat and tinned pineapple, before starting to try to get out on Wednesday.

The airport opened and then closed again and flights were frequently cancelled.

On Thursday, just 30 minutes before he was due to leave an incoming plane crashed on the runway and further flights were cancelled.

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

He is the son of the Reverend Canon Dr Alan Bartlett, vicar of St Giles' at Gilesgate and the priest-in-charge of St Mary's, Sherburn and St Cuthbert's, Shadforth.

His father 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.

“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.”

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