I’ve been fortunate to work as a photojournalist in Somalia a few times over the last twenty years. It’s a fascinating and complex place. It suffers from a strange inertia in the Western mind, conjuring up clichés of the worst of Africa. Famine, civil war, Kalashnikovs, despots… We hear the word Mogadishu and immediately images from Black Hawk Down start playing in our minds. That hasn’t been good for the country, and it hasn’t really been fair to Somalis. Security is certainly an issue, and there are still significant threats — as this week’s deadly truck bombings proved. But those threats are lessening and the capital is changing. Islamic extremist group Al Shabab has hindered this progress but the Somali army and African Union troops have pushed them back from the capital.
I always meet remarkable and resilient people in Mogadishu. A Somali restaurateur who has survived multiple suicide bombers and ardently refuses to go back to London, a young fashion designer bringing color and flare to Somali women. Those same women are shopping for handbags and shoes in the newly built Mall of Somalia. Somalis are socializing on a beach that a few years ago was a joyless affair policed by Al-Shabab who separated men from women. Peace-Park is a place crowded with the youth, many of the women in full make-up, the young men preening in their best outfits. Selfies are as ubiquitous here as in any other youth gathering on earth.
The President elected in February, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is a U.S. citizen who spent most of his time in the U.S. advocating for the rights of minorities. Inside his office at Villa Somalia, he has a large portrait of Aden Abdulle Osman positioned directly in his line of sight. Osman was the first president of an independent Somalia, elected in 1960. President “Farmajo” — as he is nicknamed – says he likes to be able to look up and see that portrait. Osman lost his campaign for re-election by one vote and willing stepped down in one of the first true acts of African political democracy. The President sees this as an inspiration for leadership in Somalia, a country he hopes to lead to stability and increased prosperity. God willing, Somalia can finally get the break its people deserve and continue inching towards progress.
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.