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Nelson Mandela's remains reach his childhood village in Qunu

Story highlights

  • Nelson Mandela's casket arrives in Qunu, where he spent much of his childhood
  • "Even when my father was in jail, he had the most fondest memories of Qunu," daughter says
  • In Qunu, the military hands over his remains to his family
  • Mandela will be buried Sunday after a funeral service

The coffin carrying Nelson Mandela's body arrived Saturday in his ancestral village of Qunu, where he'll be buried Sunday amid the lush green hills of his boyhood.

After a plane carrying his casket touched down in Mthatha, the closest airport to Qunu, it was taken in a procession past mourners who lined the roads to his rural home.

The mood among the crowd was a celebration of his life, as well as sadness for his passing.

The nation's first black president had often said he felt most at peace here at his rural home in the southeastern corner of the nation.

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

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His burial Sunday comes after 10 days of mourning.

Before Mandela's 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, bowed and prayed around his black, flag-draped casket.

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

His wife, Graca Machel, sat in 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 carried the casket into the military plane. It then took off for Qunu -- followed by fighter jets.

'He really wanted to die here'

Thousands of mourners lined the streets from the airport as Mandela's remains were brought to the remote village where he spent much of his childhood.

Mandela relished his time at the village, which is marked by endless open fields and velvety 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," Maki Mandela said. "And he really wanted to die here."

Intimate tributes

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

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

He was planning to attend Mandela's funeral Sunday, where the tributes were expected to be more intimate.

The military handed over his remains to elders at his home. And, in a symbol of the return of one of their own, the national flag that had covered his coffin was replaced with a lion skin, a traditional symbol of the Xhosa people.

At dusk, tribal leaders and men in his family held a private vigil to honor traditions of his native Thembu clan.

His casket was to lie overnight in his bedroom, which overlooks the hills and his grave site.

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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 during the three days he lay in state, government officials said.

The airport in East London, south of Qunu, will be used for their arrival and departure of dignitaries, with access closely controlled.

Thousands were expected to make the trip to Qunu for the burial, thrusting the remote village into the international spotlight. The guest list of foreign dignitaries included Britain's Prince Charles, talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

A private family prayer service will be held Sunday morning at Mandela's home. The funeral will take place in a white tent set up at the family farm.

The Mandela family, Zuma and the Cabinet members will be present along with local and foreign dignitaries. About 4,500 people are expected.

The military will again be charged with draping the flag over Mandela's coffin. Members of the military will perform a salute, and play the national anthem.

The burial

About 430 family and friends will walk to the grave site to say goodbye to the man many consider to be the father of their nation.

Mandela will be buried in the rocky soil of his childhood home.

The burial area has been built for him; some of Mandela's relatives are already buried there.

Security

Zuma has authorized nearly 12,000 members of the South African National Defence Force to serve alongside the police force.

A tight military cordon is expected around the funeral site.

As South Africa prepares to bury Nelson Mandela, young Africans are optimistic about the future