MARKA, Somalia (Reuters) - “Paradise lies under the shade of swords,” reads the Arabic inscription on an arch leading into the Somali port of Marka, abandoned last month by Islamist al Shabaab militants under pressure from advancing African Union peacekeepers and government troops.
The inscription, along with a white column by the beach where al Shabaab held public executions, is one of the reminders of the al Qaeda-allied rebels’ four-year occupation of the coastal town, 90 km (55 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu.
A determined offensive by African Union (AMISOM) and Somali government forces has made large strides over the last year to oust al Shabaab fighters from their strongholds in south-central Somalia. On Friday, Kenyan troops attacked Kismayu, the rebels’ last major bastion.
For the first time since the early 1990s, there are hopes that the Horn of Africa nation, long regarded as the ultimate ‘failed state’, could be nearing the last stages of a vicious circle of violence.
But while the successes against al Shabaab are welcomed by Somalia’s government and its international backers, there are fears that even Kismayu’s capture may not deliver a knock-out blow to the combat-hardened group. Some experts think it will redeploy and hit back with guerrilla raids and urban bombings.
Marka’s residents seem generally happy that al Shabaab has gone. But they say night time grenade attacks still occur, indicating the militants, or at least their supporters, are still there. Police have not yet arrived, though masked special forces soldiers of the Somali army patrol some streets.
“The militants’ strategic goal in the longer run could be very simple - to exhaust AMISOM, have it stretched,” a Western security official based in Mogadishu told Reuters.
Somalia’s newly elected president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has yet to name a new prime minister and appoint top security aides, raising concerns that the country’s ever feuding militias and clans could take advantage of any power vacuums.
In Marka, a picturesque port of two-storey houses with colored shutters, the recently installed district commissioner, Ahmed Moualim Abdi, recalled how al Shabaab’s presence changed the lives of the population in what was once a peaceful, carefree fishing and farming community.
“The comfortable life turned into a dog’s life. Al Shabaab implemented their harsh rule of amputations, stoning to death, whipping, forcing Zakat (Islamic tax) from businesses, harvests and livestock. Social gatherings were outlawed,” said Abdi, who fled the town during the militants’ occupation.
Now the narrow streets of Marka are packed with men dressed in shirts and sarongs setting up makeshift stalls, where flies buzz incessantly over fish, maize and vegetables.
Peter Omola, a colonel with the Ugandan AU contingent which secured Marka, described how his forces were warmly greeted by locals after the rebels put up minimal resistance.
“Civilians were so happy, waving and greeting,” said Omola in the courtyard of a house which he says al Shabaab had once used as a base.
Residents spoke with relief about restored freedoms.
“There’s a big change in the city. When al Shabaab were here we couldn’t sell what we wanted. They would arrest us all the time, we couldn’t sell tobacco and cigarettes,” said Abdirashid Adam.
“We couldn’t listen to music or watch television,” added Naima Mohamed, a timid girl in a headscarf.
Ali Oban, a feisty 15-year-old, complained that the rebels, who roamed the town in search of anyone who violated their austere interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, forced him to shave his head.
“When I cut my hair the way I wanted, they beat me,” he said, describing a Mohawk hairstyle he had adopted.
“I hate them,” he said.
But some locals were still too frightened to openly criticize the departed militants, apparently fearing that some could still be hiding out in the port in civilian clothes.
“If you know what they’re capable of, you’d have to fear them,” said one man talking to Reuters at the beach near a lone, white column carrying the words Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest), where al Shabaab used to execute offenders.
The group was not always so unpopular. In some areas of Somalia, locals said it still enjoyed support, particularly because its members often restored a semblance of order in places racked for years by chaos and violence.
In Kismayu on Friday, some residents said supporters of the al Shabaab militants were the fighters on the battlefront against the attacking African and Somali government forces.
Kismayu’s rebel defenders were expected to melt away into surrounding forests from where they could stage counter-attacks.
Marka’s inhabitants said many foreign, non-Somali fighters with al Shabaab - recognizable because of their lighter skins - fled the town to escape the AMISOM assault.
“The light-skinned people were here. They had huge guns and walked with Somalis to translate for them and collect tax from the shops,” said Abu Rahman Farah, an elderly man with a cane and a henna-dyed beard.
Local al Shabaab footsoldiers opted to defect.
Fadil Ahmed Ali, 19, said he was given a salary of $30 a month when he joined al Shabaab four years ago, a payment gradually reduced to being just given food with his comrades.
As it became clear the rebels were losing, he gave up. “When I defected, I left my gun,” he told reporters at a Ugandan military base outside the town.
While the rebels’ arsenal is no match for AMISOM’s heavy weaponry, there are still fears the battle-tested militants could hit back with classic guerrilla tactics - grenade attacks, suicide bombs and roadside blasts.
Stretched AMISOM forces are ill-equipped to maintain a robust presence on routes that connect recently captured towns.
Some of their ageing 1970s South Africa-made Casspir armored vehicles seem to be showing signs of wear and tear - one had a rope tied to a hook to secure its back door.
In Marka, Ugandan troops showed journalists a cache of weapons they said they found at the home of a militant who had fled. The weapons included a disassembled 14.5 mm anti-aircraft gun, AK-47 rifles and a pistol.
One-time academic and political newcomer Mohamud was overwhelmingly elected Somalia’s head of state on September 10 under a United Nations-backed roadmap that allowed the holding of the first presidential election in the country in 45 years.
Expectations are high that he will be able to capitalize on AMISOM’s security successes against al Shabaab.
But the militants have shown he faces a very tough task: just two days into his job, suicide bombers attacked a hotel where he was giving a news conference, killing eight people. Mohamud and the visiting Kenyan foreign minister escaped unhurt.
The last bomber burst into the hotel courtyard before guards shot him dead, meters from the red carpet, in a pool of blood.
Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood