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Indian herbal medicine sellers in Sudan seek rescue

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Around 3,000 Indians are estimated to be stranded in Sudan amid fierce fighting between the country's army and a paramilitary force.

This number includes around 100 people from the Hakki-Pikki tribe - a nomadic tribe from the southern state of Karnataka - who were in Sudan to sell herbal medicine and products.

Their plight had sparked a political row in India after the country's foreign minister, S Jaishankar, accused an opposition Congress leader of "playing politics" when he tweeted a request to ensure their safe return to India. Elections in Karnataka will be held next month.

BBC Hindi spoke to some members of the Hakki-Pikki tribe in Sudan, who said they are living in fear and have little access to necessities such as food and water.

While most of them are in the capital Khartoum - where the clashes are intense - others are in the western city of Al-Fashir, 1,000km away from the capital.

The fighting, which has been raging since last week, is the result of a power struggle between Sudan's regular army and a paramilitary unit called the Rapid Support Forces.

The death toll caused by the fighting is unclear, but the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD) said on Tuesday that at least 174 civilians had been killed in the violence.

"It is extremely scary. Heavy firing takes place nearby, mainly in the mornings and evenings. It continues late into the night," says Prabhu S, a member of the Hakki-Pikki tribe who is in Al-Fashir.

"`We are living in a hotel where the employees went away five days ago, soon after the fighting started," says Sanju Pitaji, who is stuck in Khartoum.

"We are surviving on some leftover bread and drinking water from the tap in the washroom. Ten of us are living in this room," he says.

According to the 2011 Census, there are about 12,000 Hakki-Pikkis in Karnataka. "Hakki-Pikki" translates to bird-hunters in the Kannada language, but after bird-hunting was banned in India in the 1970s, members of the tribe began making medicinal products from plants to make ends meet.

They travel to countries like Sudan, Singapore and Malaysia, often with their families, to sell these products, says Dr DC Nanjunda, an anthropologist and deputy director at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, University of Mysore.

"During our research, we found that all members of the community have a passport. They speak a language called 'Vaagari' in which you will find some traces of Gujarati," Dr Nanjunda said.

They claim that the herbal and ayurvedic oil extracts can treat various ailments, ranging from gastric problems to hair loss.

"They stay there for about five-six months, earning anywhere between 2,000 rupees ($24; £20) and 3,000 rupees per day and then return home,'' says Raghuveer, 33, a school teacher from the Hakki-Pikki community who lives in Karnataka.

His sister, brother-in-law and five other relatives left for Sudan five months ago. They had to take a loan of 500,000 rupees to travel abroad, he says.

"I spoke to my sister about 10 days ago but haven't been able to since then,'' he adds.

Back in Khartoum, community members say they have been cautioned by Indian authorities not to step out of their homes.

Sanju and his wife, who are currently stuck without electricity, were scheduled to take a flight back to India on 18 April, but the airport is shut.

"Indian embassy officials got in touch with us and told us not to move out. But how long do we wait indoors?'' he asks.

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