The family of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe gathered in his rural homestead on Saturday, three weeks after his death, to attend a much-awaited burial ceremony in the village of Kutama.
Mugabe died in a Singapore hospital on September 6, aged 95, almost two years after a military coup ended his despotic 37-year rule.
His remains will be laid to rest in the courtyard of his home in the district of Zvimba, about 90 kilometres (55 miles) west of the capital Harare.
Hundreds of mourners assembled for the low-key event, which was initially intended to be a private family ceremony.
Many wore white Mugabe-emblazoned T-shirts with the slogans ‘founding father’, ‘liberator’ and ‘torch bearer’.
Some were singing and dancing. Others sat quietly under two white tents set up for the occasion.
Mugabe's widow Grace and his children accompanied the casket -- drapped in Zimbabwe's green, yellow, red and black flag.
Clad in black, they took place in an elevated VIP tent ahead of the service.
White flower installations spelt out the words ‘DAD’ and ‘BABA’, meaning ‘father’ in the local Shona language.
‘Our hearts are bleeding because we have lost our father,’ said the priest, standing next to a portrait of Mugabe framed by white carnations.
‘This is a man who made use of the gifts he was given by God. This man was an asset, he was not a liability.’
No senior government officials were among the audience.
- 'It's his wish' -
The Mugabe family opted to bury Zimbabwe's founding father in Kutama after weeks of wrangling with the government, who wanted the body to rest at the National Heroes Acre in Harare.
A mausoleum was being constructed at the site, which is reserved for heroes of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle.
‘What we have done is his wish,’ said Grace's older sister Shuvai Gumbochuma, addressing mourners in Shona.
‘He (Mugabe) said with his own mouth that he didn't want to be buried at the heroes acre.’
Ruling ZANU-PF party described the family's decision as ‘most unfortunate’.
‘All patriotic Zimbabweans were shocked to learn that the remains of the former president had been surreptitiously taken yesterday to Zvimba for a private burial,’ said spokesman Simon Khaya-Moyo in a statement on Friday.
Former guerilla leader Mugabe took power after independence from white minority rule in 1980.
Initially hailed as a pan-African liberator, Mugabe's rule became increasingly repressive as he cracked down on his political opponents.
This combined with a series of disastrous economic policies that drove millions of Zimbabweans abroad.
Mugabe was eventually toppled by his formerly loyal military generals in 2017.
Many in the family are bitter over his ouster and the role played by his deputy and successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was elected president in 2018.
The army turned against Mugabe after he sacked Mnangagwa, a move many saw as an attempt to position Grace to succeed him.
Zimbabwe remains deeply split over his legacy.
‘I was very comfortable that he be buried at the heroes acre,’ said local official Christopher Ndlovu before the ceremony.
‘That's what we wanted as local villagers. But since it's a family decision to bury him here, we will respect it.’
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