MOGADISHU, Somalia -- When Faisa Abdi Salad heard fireworks and gunshots in Mogadishu at the sighting of the new moon that signals the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, she thought the city was under attack.
She said it took a while for it to sink in that the guns and explosions were marking a celebration, not violence.
A year ago, the Al Qaeda-linked militia Al Shabab still occupied a large part of the city; it has since abandoned the capital but still holds a large swath of southern Somalia and still launches regular attacks in Mogadishu, but its support there has sharply declined.
Mogadishu residents now live in an unusual state of peace, with businesses opening and members of the diaspora returning. On Monday, the term of the transitional government expires and a new president is due to be elected by a new parliament. Many Somalis hope that the change of government will usher in an era of peace, but some fear a return to clan violence that plagued the country in the past.
"I felt afraid when I heard heavy gunshots and thought that Al Shabab had attacked a nearby police station. But then I realized that it was only for bullets fired in the air in celebration," said Salad, a mother of five.
"I nearly burst into tears of happiness," she said, as Mogadishu celebrated its first peaceful Eid al-Fitr celebration, marking the end of Ramadan, in more than 20 years.
Posters and paintings covered the walls as Muslims celebrated with sweets and gifts of new clothes and toys for children.
Fanah Abdiasiis Mohamed, 32, a mathematics teacher, said he rose before dawn Sunday and got dressed in a new yellow sarong, a crisp white shirt and a red turban.
He went to the Adurahman Bin-Owf mosque in the Waberi district of the capital and laid a prayer rug on the deck of the mosque's first floor -- an area that has been out of use in previous celebrations due to the violence.
"Today I am very blessed to pray peacefully without fear of mortar shells and stray bullets," he said. "There is no doubt that Mogadishu faces a new era, and may Allah bring us peace and prosperity."
Mohamed said he hoped the next Eid celebration would see Mogadishu so peaceful that residents could stay out celebrating until midnight -- "if the upcoming government doesn't bring back the trauma of the past."
Mohamed's 6-year-old son, Abdulkadir, proudly wore a new pair of blue jeans Sunday, and ran outside to play with the other boys in the neighborhood, many of whom had been given exactly the same gift as him: new toy guns.
The U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, wished Somalis a blessed Eid.
"As this holy month [of Ramadan] comes to an end, Eid offers us the opportunity to reflect not only on the sacrifices made but also on the remarkable progress we have made, Mahiga said in a statement.
"August 20 is literally on our doorstep. The transitional period is about to end with the formation of a new parliament that will allow the elections of a new Speaker, Deputy Speaker and a President," he said, adding that this would pave the way for democratic elections in the future.
"It is a difficult moment which has required hard and courageous decisions. We have come too far to fail when we are just hours away from the end of the transitional period."
-- Lufti Sheriff Mohammed and Robyn Dixon
Photo: Somali boys play with toy guns as they celebrate the holiday marking the end of Ramadan on Sunday in Mogadishu. Credit: Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP/Getty Images