BAQOUBA, Iraq—Basim Alwan, 50, still walks the orange groves that surround the small house where he grew up. He still looks past the dark green leaves, searching for the fruit that's defined his life.
But these days he finds that fruit less often, and he's worried about what that means for his future, his community's future and even his nation's future.
"Without the orange trees, we'd be fish out of water, we'd die," he said. "We don't have any other jobs here. But since the war, the trees have been bare."
While the trees are still green and plentiful, they haven't borne enough fruit to yield a decent harvest for two and a half years, since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Bombs and bullets didn't rip the fruit from the branches, but residents still blame the war, which has affected the local economy in a surprising number of ways.
Baqouba, the capital of Diyala Province and Iraq's self-proclaimed City of Oranges, has about a quarter-million people. Just northeast of Baghdad, it marks the eastern edge of the world's oldest fertile region, a vast green crescent that cuts through the heart of Iraq's tan, dead desert.
Iraq's economy has continued to grow after taking a big hit during the 2003 invasion, but Baqouba's difficulties illustrate the severe and wide-ranging toll that the war has taken on some localities, especially in the politically sensitive, largely Sunni Muslim heart of the country.
Some groves have been bulldozed after officials discovered unexploded roadside bombs in or near them. Other groves have been destroyed because they'd become hiding places for terrorists and staging grounds for ambushes.
Alwan and his four brothers said they've repeatedly chased terrorists from their trees, and they now spend as much time trying to secure their grounds as they do working them.
Baqouba Mayor Khaled al Singary explains that the war didn't destroy the trees themselves, but it's wrecked the ability of the farmers to care for them. "This is not good for Iraq. If we cannot be stable economically, how can we be stable politically?" he asked.
The war has dried up fertilizer supplies, kept men from tending their fields for fear of unexploded mines, incoming mortars and bullets, and eliminated the possibility of adopting more modern methods, such as aerial spraying for insects. Farmers have the approval and pesticides for flyovers, Singary points out, but they no longer have any airplanes or money to pay for them.
"We want to save this wealth because it's considered the main resource of living for the farmers," Singary said. "The farmers have had such a hard time maintaining the trees. I don't know how much longer they can last."
Baqouba's problem hasn't reached the markets in Baghdad or the rest of the country. Iraqis can still buy oranges. But while Iraq's oranges have come from this land between and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for thousands of years, now they're imported.
Singary and many orange growers think that the imported fruit is bringing new diseases to Iraq.
"The farmers are now having to spend all the money they make buying medicines for the trees, so many new diseases are infecting the trees," he said.
The reasons for the decline are multiple. Some are perplexing: The jasmine whitefly has just arrived in the area and is causing enormous damage, which farmers are unable to fight.
The farmers need help, but those with the resources to provide it are busy fighting Sunni insurgents, Shiite militants and a vast network of criminals and foreign jihadists.
"If we get some oranges, we have to sell them right away," Singary explained. "We fear that people will steal them if we try to store them."
Kareem al Bayati, the head of disease prevention for the Baqouba Agricultural Directorate, said the situation is so dire that many farmers have given up on their groves, at least for the near future, and left to look for jobs in nearby cities.
"The fruit groves used to produce tens of tons of oranges before," he said. "Now they only produce kilos."
Abdullah Ahmed, 49, spent his entire life growing oranges. This year, he decided that he couldn't make it any longer. He wears a long dishdasha—a flowing robe—and a red Arabic headscarf as he talks.
"I sold my orange groves because for three years I have been spending too much money buying fertilizers and medicine for the trees, and it just wasn't profitable anymore," he said.
"Beyond that, terrorists were hiding in the trees, launching attacks, then returning to my trees. I don't know what to do now, after all these years, but I couldn't continue to live like that."
(Alawsy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ORANGES