The blue and white uniform looks new and its wearer seems small and uncertain amid the mayhem of a Mogadishu rush hour. The drivers, many of whom are armed, are not yet used to the sight of a traffic policeman. It’s something most Somalis haven’t seen in their capital for 20 years.
Dabka junction on the road towards parliament is swarmed with battered mini-bus taxis that vie with ageing Japanese saloon cars and four-wheel drives with blacked-out windows. The new policing initiative, paid for by the United Nations, hasn’t reached another junction half a kilometre away, where a militiaman keeps the taxis at bay by firing live rounds a few feet over the tops of their vehicles.
Rights of way are still being negotiated and the picture is uneven across a city more accustomed to war than peace but the warning shot is one of the few rounds heard. Mogadishu, which for so long had a soundtrack of mortars and small arms fire, is learning to live with the sounds of vehicles, street-hawkers and building work. The upsurge in traffic will see the city’s first conventional petrol station open later this month.
Osman Mohamed is one of hundreds of Somalis returning from the diaspora – and like most of them, he was shocked at the state of his hometown. A doctor by training who hasn’t practised medicine since he left Somalia during the civil war in the early 1990s, his first impression on coming home was that he had arrived in Hiroshima.
“It was a beautiful place, they used to call it the White City,” he said. “Now everything has been destroyed.” For now, the 58-year-old’s family has stayed in the US but he is “coming back in stages”, looking to set up a medical charity to combat the counterfeit medicines the city is awash with.
In the 10 months since Islamic militants al-Shabaab pulled out of the capital, trench warfare and street battles have been replaced by a fragile peace punctuated by suicide bombings. Once weekly flights have now become daily with planes landing from neighbouring Kenya and Djibouti but also from the Gulf States and Turkey. Most of them are full of similarly tentative returnees.
A wrecked cargo plane shot down by al-Shabaab still lies next to the runway at the Aden Adde airport, but these days it’s used to shelter deliveries of the leafy narcotic khat from the sun. The airport has been given a facelift with aid money from Istanbul, and the blue and white Somali star is matched everywhere by the Turkish flag.
Amid the wreckage of war, some traces of the city’s old charm remain in the ruined stone buildings clustered around the old port. The stench of rubbish that was dumped here during years of fighting has at least partially subsided. A new sea wall has been built, lined on the outer side with dozens of rusted metal drums, a reminder of the way Somalia’s shores have been used as a dumping ground.
To Abbas Ahmed this looks like a brave new world. The 40-year-old has worked through war, famine and foreign occupation at the crumbling, airless fish market. “This is a good year,” he says waving hands stained with the blood of gutted fish. “Every day we’re getting new customers. We can’t cope with the demand.”
On a good day he makes $35 (£22). A year ago as the city was being fought over by al-Shabaab and the African Union force, Amisom, he barely made enough to feed his family. Now he can afford to pay for his two children to go to one of the schools that has reopened. “It all depends on peace and security,” says Mr Ahmed. “Now people can come to the market.” Even as the season changes and the winds are keeping most fisherman ashore, the market is crowded. The floor is slick with blood, and clouds of flies hover over baskets of fish, shark fins and squid.
The same bustle is evident at the nearby Hamarweyne street market, where Muktar Mohamed is offering “new fashion” haircuts under a plastic awning. A Michael Jackson song blares from his tape recorder as he restyles a client with a “Ronaldo” cut. “Even if we played the music low [under al-Shabaab] we could get in trouble,” said the 28-year-old. “Now we play it as loud as you like.”
The Islamists’ restrictions on music, sport and social life are being shrugged off all across town. Women and girls crowd onto the city’s beaches to swim. A sports bar has opened in the centre, showing matches from the European football championships. The owner of the “Sports Cave” is Ahmed Jama, a catering graduate from Solihull college who has opened three restaurants since returning from the West Midlands.
His out-of-town favourite is on Jazeera beach about 10 miles along the coast, beyond the Amisom defences in a place that would, until recently, have been a no-go area. On Fridays there are traffic jams along the dirt road that cuts through the mangroves behind the sand dunes as wealthier residents make their way to Village Hotel and Restaurant for grilled seafood.
Speaking English with a West Midlands twang, he compares the new climate to a “change in the weather”. “In the last three months there’s been a big change. It’s not just about the military, it’s the people who have had enough of the violence.”
Out on the white sands, young doctors and off-duty soldiers are playing beach football, while fisherman land a skiff through the surf. Despite the apparent peace, Mr Ahmed has seen at close quarters that his remains a lethally dangerous city. He was only two rows away from the suicide bomber who killed 10 people in April at a ceremony at the reopened National Theatre. Fingering a shrapnel scar on his cheek, he recalls that the female bomber was dressed smartly: “I never thought that kind of person could be a walking bomb.”
Mr Jama mentions casually that the Sports Cave was attacked last month with a car bomb exploding outside. “These people [al-Shabaab] want to send a signal that they’re still here.”
In his office inside the Amisom base next to the airport, Ugandan Colonel Paddy Ankunda is surrounded by maps that until recently showed the African Union (AU) forces and the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) hemmed into just three of Mogadishu’s 16 districts. Now the city is ringed by Amisom outposts and the picture has changed “permanently” he claims. “This city no longer faces a conventional threat,” he said.
The AU force has increased to 12,000 troops with Uganda and Burundi joined by troops from Kenya and Djibouti, with 5,000 more to deploy. The maps show al-Shabaab under pressure to the west from Ethiopian forces, to the south from Kenya, while Uganda and Burundi are pushing out from Mogadishu, recently taking Afgoye, an important food-producing area 50 miles outside the capital.
Among the Somalis who have been tempted to come home for the first time by the changed environment is Hassan Nur, the youngest son of Mogadishu mayor Mohamed Nur. Sitting on the veranda of his father’s house halfway up the heavily guarded hill to the government compound at Villa Somalia, he had to persuade his father to let him tag along during a break from university in London.
The excitement of his homecoming captures the cautious optimism taking hold of Somalia’s ruined capital. Asked to describe his first impression of the city he says it’s hard for outsiders to comprehend: “It’s half relaxing, half scary.”