MOGADISHU, Somalia — Lihle Muhdin was 11 years old when he first picked up a Kalashnikov rifle, pushed into combat by an Islamist militia in Mogadishu.
That was 15 years ago. Now he wields a microphone in his fight for peace. Muhdin is a member of the Somali rap group Waayaha Cusub, or New Era, whose music calls on young Somalis to renounce violence.
"I want to tell the Somali youth, don't kill," he said. "We must stop this violence."
The 26-year-old rapper recently returned to Mogadishu after 14 years as a refugee in Kenya to be among the headliners at the Somali Reconciliation Festival, Mogadishu's first major music festival in two decades. For security reasons, the event, which opened this week, is being staged over six days in scattered venues and at different times.
In 1991, the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorship triggered more than two decades of devastating civil war, clan battles and Islamist insurgency. Just two years ago, the musical festival would have been unthinkable.
Yet today, a cautious optimism is taking hold amid the city's blasted-out walls, collapsed rooftops and shattered neighborhoods. There is a relative calm, and as security improves week by week, the festival aims to buttress the optimism by bringing live music back to the country.
"With the reactions we get from the public seeing Waayaha Cusub's rappers coming to the city for the first time, or kids running to see an actual guitar, it's like an end to a kind of cultural famine," said festival co-producer Daniel Gerstle of New York.
"If Al Qaeda and these groups can so easily unite youth from Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan around killing, hate and extremism, we thought we should create the opposite … an alliance of youth from these same places, but focused on peace, reconciliation and artwork," Gerstle said.
At considerable peril, the Waayaha Cusub rappers have used their art to fiercely oppose the Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked militia.
The Shabab gained control of much of the country in 2009, imposing an austere version of Islam that banned music and dance as un-Islamic. It was forced from Mogadishu by African Union forces in 2011 and has lost control of many of its southern strongholds. But the extremists are still attempting to recruit young followers, according to Muhdin.
"Al Shabab are ... spreading propaganda, taking the minds of Somalia's youth," Muhdin said. "We can use music to combat its message."
Rappers and traditional musicians from Somalia, Kenya and Sudan are lined up to appear at a series of flash-mob-style festival events. Venues and times will be sent to ticket holders via text message shortly before each performance in an attempt to limit the possibility of attacks by the Shabab.
Music and poetry run deep in Somali culture, but musicians suffered violence and intimidation regularly during the conflict.
In 2005, a Somali refugee who was a guest singer with Waayaha Cusub had her face slashed in Kenya by assailants who accused her of violating Islamic laws. She is still in hiding. Three years later, the band's lead singer, Shiine Akhyaar Ali, was shot five times by Islamic extremists at his home in a Nairobi, Kenya, district known as Little Mogadishu.
"We have been threatened many times," Muhdin said. "They [the Shabab] say: 'Stop what you are doing and follow Islam's rules. If not, you are with the Christians and we will kill you.' "
Even with improvements in security and the presence of a 17,600-strong African Union peacekeeping force, bombings and assassinations continue in the city. Although the festival organizers are relying on Mogadishu's renewed stability, there are obvious fears that it could be targeted. The performers are well aware of the dangers.
"The spirit of hip-hop is to speak up when everyone is silent," said Sudanese rapper Ahmed Mahmoud, 25, resting in a fortified Mogadishu hotel in advance of the festival. "I'm here to show the youth that there are alternative ways to express themselves, through dialogue."
Muhdin, sitting outside in the shade of a palm tree, acknowledged the risks the musicians were taking, but he said their message made it worthwhile: "Youth, keep the peace."
Johnson is a special correspondent.