Somalia’s last president before the country erupted into decades of war made an ominous warning: Force him from power, and he would leave Mogadishu as he found it, with only one road. The rest he would destroy.
The threat came true: Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in a 1991 coup, and the once elegant, Italian -colonial-era seaside town was reduced to a wasteland of ruined buildings in years of bloody battles between rival militias.
Now, 21 years later and eight months after al--Qaeda-allied insurgents abandoned much of the city following pressure from the African Union (AU) and government forces, the capital is showing signs of life, with reconstruction under way and land prices soaring.
“Security is still not reliable, but people decided they wanted to return life to normal,” trader Ahmed Sheikh Gure said.
“People are rebuilding their destroyed buildings,” he added, waving at a newly repaired shop and a busy construction site.
Though Somalia’s war is far from over, a regional offensive did force Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents from many strongholds and they abandoned the city in August.
The scars of war remain clear, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in and around Mogadishu, many in basic rag-and-plastic shelters, some in the crumbling ruins of roofless houses.
In Bakara market, the capital’s war-torn economic heart, the signs of battle are fading slowly.
“You don’t even think that war has ever taken place here,” Gure said. “Thanks to God, because people have the opportunity to rebuild.”
Bakara for many months was the epicenter of violence in one of the world’s most dangerous capitals, forcing residents and businesses to flee.
Despite an ongoing regional offensive with Ethiopian troops fighting in the west, AU troops in Mogadishu and Kenyan troops with the AU battling in the south, many Somalis are returning, bringing back capital earned abroad.
“People are rebuilding their homes,” government spokesman Abdurahman Omar Osman said. “The Somali diaspora are coming back to help ... businesses are reopening.”
Fighting erupted in Somalia in the late 1980s against Barre’s dictatorship, escalating into a brutal civil war following a 1991 coup, with rival militias, warlords and Islamist fighters battling ever since for control of the lawless nation.
Less than a year ago, troops and insurgents exchanged daily mortar fire along frontlines, before al-Shabaab fighters abandoned fixed positions and quit the city. Now it is the construction industry that is busy.
“We are not jobless these days, construction is booming,” painter Adan Sharif said. “Every four or five weeks we are called for a new construction job.”
Reconstruction is expensive, but those who can are repairing their homes, plastering and painting over bullet-pocked walls, and blocking up holes punched into masonry by rocket-propelled grenades.
“Most of the buildings in our neighborhood were renovated in recent weeks and are looking good, the area is no longer looking like the aftermath of war,” said Fadumo Moalim, a mother of eight living in the city’s Wardhigley District.
Among the ruined buildings is a dramatic Catholic cathedral, built during Italian colonial days. Its stonework was used as target practice by Islamist fighters and now houses displaced people fleeing fighting outside the city.