MOGADISHU, Somalia – Thousands of Somalis gathered in a Mogadishu sports stadium Monday to celebrate the one-year mark since African Union and Somali soldiers forced militants out of the capital, a military victory that ushered in a year of relative peace and progress.
The ouster of al-Shabab allowed residents in a war-torn seaside city to live a much more normal life. Sports leagues began. The national theater reopened. New beachside restaurants opened, offering seafood.
Al-Shabab "enslaved our people and exhumed our ancestors' bones from graves. I give thanks to the army for their ouster," said Halimo Sheikh Ali, one of the residents at Monday's rally. "Without them, our city is reclaiming its lost reputation, our people are relieved and the good life is back."
Women in bright yellow and red robes sat in the stadium stands as bright blue Somali flags were waved and the national anthem was sung.
"It's a big day. It's the day our enemy was ousted and it's the peace day of Somalia," President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed said at the sun-baked rally inside Konis stadium, which militants once used as a base.
Ahmed thanked troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti — the African Union force — as well as Ethiopia "for helping us to crush our common enemy. Somalia is really grateful for that."
Al-Shabab fighters were hated by many in Mogadishu for imposing an austere form of conservative Islamic rule where militant "judges" impose punishments like death by stoning or having a hand amputated.
Forced to flee last August, al-Shabab fighters have since resorted to bomb attacks. Somali forces shot dead two suicide bombers who tried to enter a meeting of hundreds of Somali leaders last week as they voted to endorse the country's new interim constitution.
Kenyan troops are moving toward one of the last major cities that militants control in Somalia, the port city of Kismayo.
"May Allah not bring their evils back to here again. They were misinterpreting Islam," Yusuf Haji said as he held a placard showing a drawing of a dead al-Shabab fighter. "Today, we celebrate under the shade of freedom, and this day makes us recognize that the blood of our army was not spilled in vain."
Somalia has not had a fully functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, but slow progress is being made. The adoption of a new constitution was the first step in a busy month of political change. A new parliament is soon to be seated, and those leaders will vote on a new president by Aug. 20.