MOGADISHU, Somalia – The crowd – both men and women – cheered wildly as two Mogadishu basketball teams entered an old stadium that once bore the bloodstains of war.
During the recent reign of Islamist militants, playing basketball in Somalia’s seaside capital was punishable by torture or death. Today, Somalia’s blue flag has reclaimed its place over the battered Lujino Stadium, replacing the black banner of al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group that until a few months ago held sway over much of Mogadishu.
The city is full of life for the first time in 20 years. Since African Union and Somali troops pushed Islamist militants out of the city last year, schools, shops and markets have reopened. The city government has repaired potholed streets and installed streetlights. Turkish Airlines last month began weekly flights, advertised on billboards, marking the first time in decades that a reputable international carrier has offered regular flights to Mogadishu.
Western-style restaurants are opening, including near Mogadishu’s beach front, where men and women swim together without fear of punishment from militants. People dance at weddings.
It’s too early to say that the chaos, violence and hunger that have often gripped Mogadishu since 1991, when dictator Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other, are gone for good. But a tectonic shift has occurred in the life of this city since al-Shabab’s withdrawal last August. The group at one point had controlled all but a few blocks of the capital.
“I see so much difference as a longtime resident in Mogadishu,” Abdiaziz Nur, a 31-year-old Mogadishu resident, said at a cafe where he was smoking a hookah. “I had never dreamed that I would either walk through Mogadishu’s streets or drive my car at night, but now we feel glorified and proud.”
The war is still sometimes felt in the capital, with a mortar round or car bomb exploding every few days. Unexploded munitions are also a danger – an old bomb embedded in ground being used as a soccer field exploded last month as a team jumped up and down in celebration of a goal, killing two players and wounding three.
But the violence is nowhere near the scale previously seen, and al-Shabab’s strict social rules are no longer enforced in a capital whose population is believed to be between 1.5 million and 3 million.