QUNU, South Africa (AP):
A COFFIN carrying the remains of Nelson Mandela arrived at his hometown of Qunu in South Africa yesterday, ahead of today's burial in the native ground he loved.
The hearse carrying Mandela's coffin, draped with a national flag, arrived at the family compound under cloudy skies at 4 p.m.
It was escorted by an enormous convoy of police, military, and other vehicles, many flashing emergency lights. A military helicopter hovered near the home.
On the final journey to his home village, Mandela's memory was honoured amid pomp and ceremony yesterday at an airbase in the capital before being flown aboard a military plane to this simple village in the wide-open spaces of eastern South Africa.
At the Mthatha Airport, Mandela's coffin was welcomed by a military guard and placed in a convoy for the 32-kilometre (20-mile) voyage towards Qunu.
Residents and people who had travelled for hours thronged a road leading to Qunu, singing and dancing as Mandela T-shirts were handed out.
"We got up this morning at 2 a.m. and drove from Port Elizabeth - it's about seven hours - and we got here now. We're waiting to show our last respects to Madiba," said Ebrahim Jeftha, using Mandela's clan name.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, tearfully embraced at Mthatha Airport when the coffin arrived.
Soldiers in full gear, male and female, were stationed on foot on either side of the road from the airport in Mthatha as cows grazed nearby. Some civilians were also already lining the route, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas.
Mandela had longed to spend his final months in his beloved rural village, but instead, he had spent them in a hospital in Pretoria and then in his home in Johannesburg, where he had remained in critical condition, suffering from lung problems and other ailments, until his death.
In Qunu, residents expressed deep affection for their beloved native son.
"Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela," chanted a crowd on a highway near Mandela's compound.
"My president," they sang. There were also old songs of the anti-apartheid struggle. "Release Mandela from prison," went the chorus of one.
Many people carried small national flags or banners with a smiling image of Mandela. Periodically, police and other official vehicles passed by, heading to the compound.
MISSING HIS SMILE
Khanyisa Qatolo, 28, was born in Qunu and attended children's Christmas parties hosted by Mandela at his home when she was a child in the 1990s.
"I remember his smile," she said. "I miss his smile."
Qatolo said she was disappointed that local residents would be unable to go to Mandela's funeral, in line with local custom, and had instead been asked by officials to view the final rites on big video screens in the area.
"The people of the community, they should be there, supporting the family," she said. "I feel bad not to go there," she said.
Milly Viljoen, 43, drove 12 hours through the night with a friend to stand on the roadside overlooking Mandela's compound in Qunu.
Mandela's widow Machel, wearing black, wept and wiped tears from under her glasses at a farewell ceremony at an airbase in Pretoria yesterday morning. Madikizela-Mandela, looking stricken, was also there, as well as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
The late president died in his Johannesburg home on December 5 at age 95.