Somalis Cautiously Return to Normal Life, and the Beach.

undefinedHalkaan ka akhri

New York Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia — After years of surviving under the yoke of fundamentalist Islamist militants, Somalis are getting their swagger back.

Over the weekend, an unexpected sight could be seen along the shores of the capital, Mogadishu. In a city known for shelling, suicide bombs, Sharia law and public executions, hundreds were out enjoying the scenery and sunning themselves at the beach.

“For the first time in years,” said Mohamoud Abdi, who came to Mogadishu’s again-popular Lido Beach on Friday with his two sons. “People are feeling delightful.”

In a city torn by fundamentalism and fighting, a return to the beach is a symbol of how far peace seems to have come, as government forces and African peacekeepers have pushed Islamist rebels out of the capital over the last several months.

Mogadishu is a museum of war. Its buildings look like old ruins, except that the city has not eroded slowly over millennia, but in 20 bullet-packed years. For many residents, the last five have been spent under a particularly oppressive regime, the militant Islamist group known as the Shabab, which rose up in 2006 as a popular nationalist movement to kick troops from Ethiopia out of the country.

But the Shabab soon turned against Somalis themselves, and it became evident that its brand of Islam wasn’t congruent with Somali culture. The group banned music, soccer and even bras; it swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. As for going to Mogadishu’s idyllic beaches for a game of football in the sand, or a romp in the water — between radical Islamist laws (women were banned from swimming there in 2006) and constant fighting, such an outing was akin to exercising a death wish.

No more. Since the Shabab largely retreated from Mogadishu in early August, the city has slowly and cautiously been stirring to life. Vendors are moving back into the central market. People dine in outdoor cafes.

Maybe most cathartically, they are going back to the beach — men and women alike.

“I had never thought of coming here,” said Said Yare, rolling in the sand at Lido.

Going to Lido Beach on Friday used to be a weekly pastime for Somalis, young and old, families and friends. Before the fall of President Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991, Lido Beach was packed with clubs, pubs and cafés. Somalia has the longest coastline on the continent of Africa, with some of its warmest waters, and Mogadishu was known as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean.”

But civil war gutted leisure activities, and by 2005, with Mogadishu carved up under the control of competing warlords, Lido Beach was a veritable ghost of its former self. Then came an Islamist government known as the ICU; then came fighting with Ethiopian soldiers; then came the Shabab; then came fighting with African Union peacekeepers. Somalis started returning to Lido only last month.

The African Union peacekeeping mission in the country has taken the opportunity to promote Lido Beach’s resurgence as a testament to the peacekeeper’s triumphs over the Shabab.

“Roads are being repaired, homes rebuilt and markets reopened,” the peacekeeping mission, known as AMISOM, said in a statement. “Real estate prices along Via Moscow have doubled, and there are people out in the streets late into the night.”

Even a former Somali president, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, was photographed playing soccer at Lido as the city “reawakens,” the mission said.

But in a country used to war, it is unclear how long the respite will last.

Al-Shabab is down but not out,” says EJ Hogendoorn, a Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. “AMISOM has made impressive advances, but with very high casualties.”

As for the Shabab, Mr. Hogendoorn says, the group has reverted to “guerilla warfare.”

That means Mogadishu still is not safe. Two suicide bombers, one believed to be American, blew themselves up at an African Union peacekeeping base last month, killing an untold number. In early October, a suicide bomber killed roughly 100, many students, at the ministry of education. As for going to the beach, some still profess caution.

“We are finally back to our homes; now we are trying to test the delicacy of peace,” said Shankaron Mohamoud, a young woman at Lido.

“Think about this beach,” she said. “It is something that drives me to wonder, seeing people around after many years.”

Mohamed Ibrahim reported from Mogadishu, Somalia, and Josh Kron reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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