MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The crowd — both men and women — cheered wildly as two Mogadishu basketball teams entered an old stadium that once bore the bloodstains of war.
During the recent reign of Islamist militants, playing basketball in Somalia's seaside capital was punishable by torture or death. Today, Somalia's blue flag has reclaimed its place over the battered Lujino Stadium, replacing the black banner of al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group that until a few months ago held sway over much of Mogadishu.
This seaside capital is full of life for the first time in 20 years. Since African Union and Somali troops pushed Islamist militants out of the city last year, schools, shops and markets have reopened. The city government has repaired potholed streets and installed streetlights. Turkish Airlines last month began weekly flights, advertised on billboards, marking the first time in decades that a reputable international carrier has regular flights to Mogadishu.
Western-style restaurants are opening, including near Mogadishu's beach front, where men and women swim together without fear of punishment from militants. People dance at weddings.
It's too early to say that the chaos, violence and hunger that have often gripped Mogadishu since 1991, when dictator Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other, are gone for good. But a tectonic shift has occurred in the life of this city since al-Shabab's withdrawal last August. The group at one point had controlled all but a few blocks of the capital.
"I see so much difference as a longtime resident in Mogadishu," Abdiaziz Nur, a 31-year-old Mogadishu resident, said at a cafe where he was smoking a hookah. "I had never dreamed that I would either walk through Mogadishu's streets or drive my car at night, but now we feel glorified and proud."
The war is still sometimes felt in the capital, with a mortar round or car bomb exploding every few days. Unexploded munitions are also a danger — an old bomb embedded in ground being used as a soccer field exploded last month as a team jumped up and down in celebration of a goal, killing two players and wounding three.
But the violence is nowhere near the scale previously seen, and al-Shabab's strict social rules are no longer enforced in a capital whose population is believed to be between 1.5 million and 3 million. No one knows how many people live in Mogadishu, because until now it has been too dangerous to conduct a census.
Changes are coming with stunning speed.
A Somali-American entrepreneur is investing millions of dollars to open the first international bank here in more than two decades. The First Somali Bank, protected by 10 guards, plans to offer mortgage loans and international banking services.
"The city is returning to normal now. Thanks to Allah we can do business here again," said Liban Abdi Igal, the bank's chairman, who was recently living in Maryland. "I have returned here with optimism after seeing progress and revival."
After getting a facelift, the national theater reopened for the first time in 20 years. The opening concert on March 19 featured musicians playing guitars and drums. The performance was broadcast live on TV. Beauty salons and gyms are again flourishing in Mogadishu. Women have started driving cars, and Somalis play music on radios without fear.
Despite the advances, poverty is still prevalent in much of the city. Thousands of refugees displaced by famine last year sleep on dusty lots. Unemployment is widespread. Women with children on their laps sit on street corners, hoping for a handout.
Nowhere is Mogadishu's transformation more clearly observed than on its many sports fields.
Just a year ago, al-Shabab used Mogadishu's stadium as a launching pad for attacks against the nearby presidential palace. Mortars fired by pro-government forces sometimes landed inside the stadium. Blood stained the walls and the stone bleacher seats, even the goal posts. After al-Shabab left, residents washed the blood away.
The coach of Somalia's national basketball team, Daud Diriye, never thought he'd see the day when sports came back to the city. His team is even traveling to Uganda to play in a tournament.
"Having endured the strict rule of the Islamists for so much time, I thought my training days were over," the 53-year-old potbellied coach said.
On a recent day, Shukri Saeed was next to a male basketball fan at a game and excitedly spoke of the city's changes.
"Sports are witnessing a revival nowadays, and everyone is in charge of his own destiny," she said.
Hundreds of men and women were joking, chewing gum and enjoying simple pleasures together at the game. Al-Shabab had banned males and females from sitting together in public as a violation of Sharia law. Violators faced public whipping or imprisonment.
Across the war-scarred capital, dozens of soccer fields are filled with players. The revival of sports has not only brought ordinary Somalis outside, it has also pulled young militants away from the hold of insurgent groups.
"I have three al-Shabab defectors who want a new, entertaining life," Daud said, glancing at two men struggling to catch a bouncing ball.
Mogadishu residents are even going out at night to watch sports competitions — a normal activity most anywhere else in the world but a forgotten pleasure here.
Mohamed Hashi, a 64-year-old former basketball player, watched a crowd arriving at the stadium with tears in his eyes.
"The grim days are over," he said.