Abdinur Isse stepped gingerly over the bat droppings, pushed aside the thorn bushes and walked into his roofless, burned-out home.
"We are starting from zero," the 51-year-old Isse said, staring at the smashed concrete, cinder blocks, corrugated iron and other rubble in the long-abandoned dwelling where his family once lived.
"This used to be my room. Now only bats live here," he said.
He's one of thousands of Somalis flooding into Mogadishu after Islamist rebels pulled out of the capital last month.
About 6,200 people arrived in Mogadishu in August, the U.N. refugee agency said, reversing a five-year-trend of families fleeing the fighting.
Some of those are families from the famine-stricken interior of the country, drawn to the international aid available in the capital.
But many are former residents, cautiously returning to see what they can rebuild from the ruins of their lives now that fighting in Mogadishu has mostly died down.
Two decades of war have gutted most of the city, including Isse's once-beautiful villa. Walls etched with starburst holes from exploding grenades are crumbling on streets overgrown with thorn bushes.
"My home used to be beautiful," Isse said sadly. "Now, it's a desert."
For months, Isse's Bondere neighborhood was bisected by a front line between the Islamic insurgents of the al-Shabab militia and troops from the African Union supporting the weak, U.N.-backed government. The al-Qaida linked rebels forbade anyone to cut the bushes, which offered perfect cover for launching hit and run attacks.
The ground is scarred with hastily dug trenches and tunnels to allow fighters to move unseen.
Now residents are washing off old bloodstains, sweeping out debris and rediscovering dust-covered toys.
Among those returning is Abdirahman Barre, whose two-room home made from corrugated iron sheets was demolished by a mortar. He is camping out next to the twisted wreckage in a dome of cloth scraps stretched over twigs.
"I have no money to rebuild it. We ask people to help us to rebuild our homes," he said as he greeted other returning neighbors, their donkey carts piled high with belongings.
Many have not been home for years, living in makeshift shelters by the side of the road in Afgoye or Elasha, two massive settlements for the displaced on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Around 409,000 people live in Afgoye alone.
"There's no water, electricity, or markets here. It gets extremely dark at night and people's movement stop," Barre said.
The U.N. and other international agencies have had a plan in place for more than two years to help Somalis returning to Mogadishu, but only if there are sufficient numbers. The plan calls for giving out building materials, iron sheeting and other aid if more than 200,000 people come back.
So far, the numbers are too low to implement the plan, the U.N. said, so Somalis are having to make do for themselves. Some get piecemeal help by camping among the families fleeing the drought, war and famine, said Andy Needham, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
"I want the district to return to normalcy again, and it truly will be if everyone works on his home," said Mohamed Shido, 39, who returned to his abandoned neighborhood of Sinay to help clean up. A neighbor said they need help to fill in potholes and clear large debris from the streets.
"It needs a lot of rebuilding and work that cannot be completed by residents alone," said Sabriye Muhummed, a retired former civil aviation officer. "You see everyone makes only his home, so who will construct and clear the streets, police stations and all other difficult tasks? Only a government's resources can fill the gaps."
A Somali government official did not return messages seeking comment on rebuilding plans. On Tuesday, the government signed a promise to improve governance and services in return for international funding. But for the past few years, very little has been done, even though the government received tens of millions of dollars in donations.
Even if they must clean up for themselves for now, residents say, they want soldiers to guard abandoned police posts to protect them from marauders by night and militants by day.
The Islamists withdrew from their bases in Mogadishu last month, with many leaving in convoys of vehicles. The retreat followed months of fighting in which the better-armed African Union forces steadily pushed them back from most of the city.
Some of the al-Shabab insurgents, however, just hid their weapons and melted back into the city. They have carried out a gruesome campaign of beheadings in recent weeks against civilians. The reason for the killings is unclear.
"Al-Shabab does not deserve to be in control of our village. We expect the government to live up to our expectations and provide security to prevent al-Shabab's return," said Fadumo Addow, a mother of two who returned to the capital's Wardhigley district this week.
A small snake crawled away as Addow lifted a rusted cooking pot. Cockroaches scuttled when she sat on a bed covered in cobwebs.
But she was not deterred _ not by these unexpected guests in her home, not by the threat of future attacks, and not by the lack of help.
"My return to my village is a dream a long time coming," she said. "It finally came true today."
Associated Press writer Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.