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MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Their life's belongings piled on donkeys, Somali families weave along alleys filled with the corpses of starved animals to return to their bullet-ridden homes.
After four years of war, Mogadishu bears the signs of a city slowly rising from the ruins of war.
Gunfire, bombs and mortars had punctured the coastal city almost everyday as Western-backed government forces and African Union troops fought an insurgency by the Islamist al Shabaab rebel group.
But earlier this month, the al Qaeda-inspired militants -- outgunned and divided -- withdrew nearly all their combatants from their bases in the capital and Somalis woke to what they say they hope will be an extended period of calm.
"I led a dog's life for the last two years," said Liban Abdulle who was forced to flee his home and shop in Abdiaziz, a once thriving Mogadishu district near the water-front.
Al Shabaab overran the neighborhood in 2008, as it did elsewhere in Mogadishu, turning it into a battlefield, digging tunnels and trenches and commandeering people's homes.
Abdulle fled to Elasha on the outskirts of Mogadishu, one of several towns where tens of thousands of displaced Somalis settled.
"I have now returned to my former home. The house was looted and destroyed. But I am happy, my cousin sent me $400 to revive my shop. Business is good and people have returned," he said.
A local rights group said up to half a million people had returned to their dwellings in the last three weeks, in a city that numbered two million people before the insurgency.
Those with no homes to return to in Mogadishu, fill squalid, makeshift refugee camps where an influx of Somalis fleeing famine in the country's south have further swelled numbers.
AU tanks and Somali forces on pick-ups mounted with anti-aircraft guns patrol Mogadishu's streets, trying to maintain the lull in fighting, which over four years has killed more than 20,000 people according to U.N. estimates.
There are still some pockets of resistance by al Shabaab in the capital's northern districts. The militants have vowed to press the fight and resort to al Qaeda-style attacks.
But the threats have not deterred many families from returning, with their mattresses, pillows, buckets, rugs and tires piled high on carts and buses.
On one Sinai street, bullet holes scar a row of one-storey bricked houses, their metal sheet roofs in various stages of collapse.
"The rebels dug trenches, overgrown bushes crowd the house and the skeletons of our donkeys lie nearby," said Gele Culusow from the Karan district, where hastily constructed cemeteries mark the graves of those who dared remain to guard their houses.
"Some good traders helped us with tractors to fill the trenches and to level heaps. Everyone around here has an axe to clear bushes around their houses. It is do it yourself," he said.
After four years away, Habiba Osman returned to her home in Taleh, a neighborhood between the K-4 road junction and Somalia's main Bakara market, a former rebel base.
"Electricity cables, water pipes, the roof and some walls were ruined by shells. I understand al Shabaab were firing mortars from my house, prompting the AU's shells to land on it," said Osman who had to pay $4,000 to repair the damage.
"Now there is hope for living. I am home with my children."
Roads that once served as front lines in the fighting have re-opened. The booming parts of the capital are those which have been under government control for the last four years.
There, vehicles are out on the streets late into the night, businesses stay open later and older houses along well-lit streets are being torn down to make way for newer ones.
Mogadishu has become a haven for Somalis fleeing the drought-hit, rebel-controlled parts of the country where al Shabaab imposed a ban on food aid agencies and tried to prevent Somalis from fleeing in search of food.
Although operating in Mogadishu is far from easy, relief groups say that more food aid is reaching refugee camps and sanitation conditions have improved since al Shabaab pulled out.
"I never thought my children and I would live to see this moment," said Samira Yasin who fled to the Korsan camp in Elasha from Mogadishu's Daynile district after her husband and son were killed in fighting four years ago.
Previously living under al Shabaab control, Yasin described a filthy, mosquito and flea-ridden camp where her children suffered from measles and malnourishment.
"Now at least life is better. There are no parasites and no al Shabaab. We get free food, medicine and water. I will work for my children and take them back to our house," she said.
"I believe God will not revive al Shabaab again, because he is merciful."
Many regional observers expect al Shabaab, who said their retreat was tactical, to reemerge in Mogadishu, this time as guerrilla fighters rather than a conventional fighting force.
Still, many residents are optimistic for the future.
On Tuesday, hundreds of men, traditional white cloth wrapped around their bodies, gathered in a football stadium and engaged in Shirib, poetic short verse composed by some Somali clans. They jumped to the rhythm of their chants: "Come out for peace. Mogadishu's wounds are healed. Come out for peace."
Reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Richard Lough and Elizabeth Piper