MOGADISHU, Somalia — The small, fat sweet pancakes called “mashmash” spit and bubble as Ahmed Jama plops them into a beat-up skillet of boiling oil. Next to it, a cauldron of goat stew simmers.
It’s Ramadan and as ravenous customers arrive for their first meal since dawn, the early evening rush gets underway.
With its open kitchen and relaxed garden vibe, the Village Restaurant in Hodan is something new in Mogadishu. Since the withdrawal of Islamist militants a year ago, the city is awakening from two decades of civil war, blinking its eyes and shaking the trauma from its bones.
Mogadishu, long synonymous with war, is changing with breathtaking speed. While violence remains an ever-present threat, Somali residents say they are living in relative peace.
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From behind the kitchen counter at his restaurant, Jama, who was trained as a chef in Britain and returned home in 2008 after 25 years abroad, serves up seafood, pastas, meat and vegetable dishes for prices approaching $10 a plate, a relatively high price tag in Mogadishu.
“I only use fresh ingredients, organic,” he said. Jama has a staff of 43 people at this, his main restaurant, and a similar number at two other premises in the city. “People are tired of war, they want jobs.”
Among the customers buying take-out one recent afternoon was Sharmarke Shirwa, a young Somali-American man from Boston, who wore fat reflective shades and carried a BlackBerry phone and the keys to a Toyota 4x4.
“I eat three meals a day here normally,” he said as he handed the cashier a $100 bill. Many here prefer US currency to the less stable Somali shilling.
“It’s the cleanest, best restaurant in town. He’s really using the skills he learned in London.”
Other Somalis can be found promenading together along Lido Beach along the Indian Ocean on a Friday afternoon, something that would have been impossible just a year ago.
The restaurants, bars and clubs that in decades past made this Somali Riviera buzz are now nothing but bombed out rubble. But the beach retains its natural beauty — white sand and clear seas with waves breaking on the reef in the distance. It is once again attracting visitors who feel that it is safe to venture out. Young men play football, and couples walk side-by-side.
Downtown, parades of shops that were, just 18 months ago, sandbagged frontline positions are now open again. Their brightly painted storefronts advertise their wares: airline offices and travel agents, supermarkets and hardware stores, bakeries and ice cream parlors, photo studios and even a tourist gift shop.
One of the artists responsible for the city’s fresh lick of paint is Abdikadir Aweys Abdi, aka Mr. Happy, the squat self-taught proprietor of the studio “Happy Arts.”
In his dirt-floored workshop, paper stencils and clothes hang from the rafters of the tin roof, signboards and paintings lean against the rough walls and two of his apprentices sit on chairs sketching.
“A lot of things have changed in Mogadishu. People are coming back,” he said. “We are now too busy. Before there was violence, there were explosions and fighting, people were fleeing. But now it is calm.”
Mogadishu, however, remains relatively chaotic and largely ungoverned. Life is almost unimaginably tough for most. They can’t afford meals at Jama’s restaurants and peace is the only improvement.
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For squatters inside a derelict university building, where they have lived in cramped squalor the last 20 years, change is coming too, but not always for the best.
They are now facing eviction as a revitalized government begins to reclaim its buildings.
“We know we’ll be kicked out eventually but I don’t know where we’ll go,” said Fatima Mohamed, a 25-year-old mother of five, who lives with her family in a single room with a single bed.
“I came here when I was quite young. I got married here, I gave birth to these children here,” she said, surrounded by her kids. “I don’t have any other place to live.”
No matter how much things are improving, the pain of the country’s most recent war lingers. Al Shabaab, a militant group aligned with Al Qaeda, ruled with Taliban-style brutality, focusing their anger and violence on the people and things that posed a challenge, whether military, intellectual or religious.
In 2009, Al Shabaab fighters came to the home of Dr. Sharif Sheikh Muhyadin, an Italian-trained legal professor and head of the “Qadiriyya,” a Sufi religious sect whose interpretation of Islam runs counter to Al Shabaab’s austere Wahhabi beliefs.
“They destroyed everything because they don’t know the true religion,” Muhyadin said. They looted centuries-old handwritten Islamic books from his library, desecrated the grave of his father and exploded a bomb in a local mosque.
“They dishonored the living and the dead,” Muhyadin said.
Paging through one of the few remaining handwritten books in the cluttered library the sheikh’s grandson, Muhyadin Iman Ahmed, was emotional.
“I lost something inside me, which I can’t replace,” he said.
The libraries and tombs may have been destroyed but at least the Sufi mosques are open again. At the nearby Zaylia mosque, Sufi followers — who would be executed for their faith under Al Shabaab — are once again able to pray as they choose.
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“We are free to practice our faith without persecution. Al Shabaab dominated everything and tried to dominate our beliefs too,” said Mohamud Sheikh Nur after attending Friday prayers in the packed mosque.
“It’s hard to put the feeling into words,” he said. Then he paused and added, “We are back home again.”