Somalia’s National Theatre, built by the Chinese in 1967, has been occupied by warlords and targeted by suicide bombers. For three decades, it had not actually screened a film — until a historic showing in Mogadishu Wednesday night.

Two short films by Somali director Ibrahim CM drew an eager audience reminiscent of the crowds that once filled venues during the Horn of Africa nation’s cultural heyday decades ago, Agence France-Presse reported.

There was still a heavy security presence — a part of Somali life after years of war and violence — but the screening was welcomed with the excited claps and chatter of the crowd.

“This is going to be a historic night for the Somali people. It shows how hopes have been revived,” theater director Abdikadir Abdi Yusuf told AFP before the films screened.

The theater, which has been recently restored, “provides an opportunity to … Somali songwriters, storytellers, movie directors and actors to present their talent openly,” the venue’s director added.

When a civil war hit Somalia in 1991, the National Theatre fell into disarray as warlords occupied it and anarchy reigned. The building briefly reopened in 2012, only to be bombed two weeks later by al-Shabab, a militant group linked to al-Qaeda that considers entertainment such as movies to be corrupt.

Al-Shabab, which was driven out of Mogadishu a decade ago, regularly attacks the Somali capital and controls much of the country’s interior. The United States, among other donors, has poured billions of dollars into security support for Somalia’s barely functioning federal government in its ongoing fight against al-Shabab. Increasing political instability in Mogadishu, including stalled elections, could further embolden al-Shabab, analysts have warned.

These tensions are not far off from the cinema hall, which is in a heavily guarded compound that also houses Somalia’s presidential palace and parliament.

Tickets for CM’s two movies Wednesday cost $10, a luxury in a country consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world.

But the chance to publicly watch a movie held a different value for many in the audience.

“I used to watch concerts, dramas, pop shows, folk dances and movies in the National Theatre during the good old days,” Osman Yusuf Osman told AFP. “It makes me feel bad when I see Mogadishu lacking the nightlife it once had. But this is a good start.”

Some audience members, however, were fearful that once-normal nights like these could not be sustained.

“I was a school-age girl when my friends and I used to watch live concerts and dramas at the national theater,” Hakimo Mohamed, another audience member, told AFP. “People used to go out during the night and stay back late if they wished — but now, I don’t think it is so safe,” she said.