A Taste of Hope in Mogadishu

Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, which was reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, is making a remarkable comeback. A work by Abdullah Abdirahman Abdullah Alif, a local artist, illustrates the transition taking place thereMore Photos »

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Published: April 3, 2012

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Up until a few weeks ago, all visitors who landed at Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu were handed a poorly copied, barely readable sheet that asked for name, address — and caliber of weapon.

No more. Now visitors get a bright yellow welcome card that has no mention of guns and several choices for reason of visit, including a new category: holiday.

Outside, on Mogadishu’s streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers. Construction is going on everywhere — new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially “Somali Idol.”

Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback. The Shabab, the fearsome insurgents who once controlled much of the country, withdrew from the city in August and have been besieged on multiple sides by troops from the African Union, Kenya, Ethiopia and an array of local militias.

Now, one superpower is left in the capital — the African Union, with 10,000 troops (soon to be 17,000), tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers that constantly chug up and down the street — and the city is enjoying its longest epoch of relative peace since 1991: eight months and counting.

“It’s a rebirth,” grinned Omar Osman, a Somali-American software engineer who worked for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta and just moved back here. “Call it Somalia 2.0.”

Clearly, this city and the rest of Somalia still have a long way to go. A suicide bomber recently struck at the gates of the presidential palace, and a stray mortar shell crashed into a refugee camp, killing six. A few warlords are still lurking around and clan-based militias have reared their heads in some neighborhoods, a potent reminder of the clan-driven chaos that dominated Mogadishu for so long.

But people here are sensing the moment and seizing it. More than 300,000 residents have come back to the city in the past six months, local aid groups say, and many are cheerfully carting away chunks of rumble and resurrecting their bullet-riddled homes. The economic boom, fueled by an infusion of tens of millions of dollars, much of it from Somalis flocking home from overseas, is spawning thousands of jobs that are beginning to absorb young militiamen eager to get out of the killing business.

Given Mogadishu’s importance to the country, it all adds up to a huge opportunity. And though Somalia has self-destructed numerous times before, Augustine Mahiga, the head of the United Nations political office for Somalia, along with so many others here, insisted that this time really is different. Somalia, they contend, is finally turning around.

“For the first time since 1991, Mogadishu is under one authority,” Mr. Mahiga said from a new office that exuded the whiff of fresh paint. “It’s unprecedented.”

All across town, people who have no connection to each other and who come from very different walks of life describe the same new, strange feeling: hope.

The Fishmonger

The room is packed, the flies are swarming, and the floor is sticky with thick, black blood.

“Four million!” shouts Mohammed Sheik Nur Taatey, emphatically waving four stubby fingers. “Give me four million. I won’t take a shilling less.”

This is economics at its most elemental — supply and demand, seller and buyer, Mr. Taatey and the brawny, sweaty, pushy crowd. The arena: Mogadishu’s fish market, a long, skinny, seaside building where many thousands of dollars’ worth of fish are sold every day.