- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 11, 2012

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — The crowd cheered wildly as two Mogadishu basketball teams entered an old stadium that once bore the bloodstains of war.

During the recent reign of Islamist terrorists, 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 Islamist group that until a few months ago enforced brutal control over much of Mogadishu.

This seaside capital 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 regular flights to Mogadishu.

Western-style restaurants are opening, including some near Mogadishu’s beachfront, where men and women swim together without fear of punishment from militants. People dance at weddings.

Violence not over

It is too early to say that the chaos, violence and hunger that 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 in 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, 31, 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 used as a soccer field exploded last month, as a team jumped up and down in celebration of a goal. The blast killed two players and wounded 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 with a population estimated to be between 1.5 million and 3 million.

No one knows how many people live in Mogadishu, because until now it has been too dangerous to conduct a census.

Changes are coming with stunning speed.

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