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Nelson Mandela's remains reach his childhood home in Qunu

10:58 AM, Dec 14, 2013   |    comments
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Qunu, South Africa (CNN) -- A funeral cortege carrying Nelson Mandela's body arrived Saturday in his ancestral village of Qunu, in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, where he'll be buried surrounded by the lush green hills of his boyhood.

South Africa's first black president will be laid to rest in Qunu on Sunday.

After a plane carrying his casket touched down in Mthatha, the closest airport to Qunu, it was transported in a procession to his rural home. Mourners lined the roads to pay their respects.

Mandela has always said he feels most at peace at the rural home in the southeastern corner of the nation.

"Look, he loved these hills. He really believed this is where he belonged," his daughter, Maki Mandela, told CNN in an exclusive interview.

His burial Sunday comes after 10 days of mourning for the international anti-apartheid icon.

Before his journey home, the ruling African National Congress bid him farewell Saturday morning at an air force base in Pretoria.
Members of the ruling party stood around his black, flag-draped casket. They bowed and prayed.

"Icon of our struggle. Father of our nation," read a giant poster with a picture of a smiling Mandela.

His wife, Graca Machel, sat on the front row, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.

"We will miss him. He was our leader in a special time. Go well, Tata," President Jacob Zuma said, using the Xhosa word for father. "You've played your part. You've made your contribution. We'll always remember you."

Helicopters hovered overhead as soldiers marched the casket into the military plane. It was followed by fighter jets as it took off for Qunu.

'He really wanted to die here'

Though dined by presidents and kings, Mandela relished his time at the simple village, which has endless open fields and velvety green grass. It's where he herded cows and goats as a child; where his relatives are buried at the family farm.

"Even when my father was in jail, he had the most fondest memories of Qunu. And he really wanted to die here," Maki Mandela said.

Throngs of mourners lined the streets as the military carried Nelson Mandela's body home for the last time.

The mood among the crowd appeared to be one of celebration of his life, as well as sadness for his passing.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the U.S. civil rights leader, told CNN that this was "a day of painful celebration."

"People are beginning to realize what they've lost, but they know they've got so much left. They know what he left in place stays in place," said Jackson, referring to the sweeping political and social change achieved by the anti-apartheid leader.

He will be among the guests at Mandela's funeral Sunday. He also attended other ceremonies of remembrance in the past week.

Once in Qunu, the tributes will get more intimate.

The military will hand over his remains to elders at his home. And to symbolize a return of one of their own, the national flag over his coffin will be replaced with a traditional symbol of the Xhosa people.

At dusk, tribal leaders and men in his family will hold a private night vigil to honor traditions of his native Thembu clan.
His casket will lie in his bedroom overnight. The room overlooks the hills and his grave site.

Villagers may gather outside the house to pay their respects.

Small village, giant spotlight

Mandela died last week at age 95.

Events leading up to the burial included a memorial service Tuesday followed by three days of public viewing at Pretoria's Union Buildings, where he was sworn in as president in 1994.

About 100,000 people paid homage to Mandela in the three days he lay in state, government officials said.

Thousands are expected to make the trip to Qunu for the burial, thrusting the remote village into the international spotlight. The mourners will include dozens of foreign dignitaries making their way along the back roads of his rural resting place.

Notable names on the guest list include former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his family, Britain's Prince Charles and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

"It's been a challenge, it's been a serious challenge. But, hey, my grandfather was born here," Tukwini Mandela said of planning the logistics. "It's a mix of emotions, some of us are very teary because this is where my grandfather told us who we were as the Mandelas."

About 400 family and close friends will walk to the grave site to bid a final farewell to the man who spent 27 years in prison and emerged to lead the nation out of its grim apartheid era.

He will be laid to rest in the afternoon when the sun is high in the sky.


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