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Saturday, December 14, 2013 - 4:08pm
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 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 transported in a procession to his rural home. Mourners lined the roads to pay their respects.
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."
His burial Sunday comes after 10 days of mourning.
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, 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 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 carried the casket into the military plane, which then took off for Qunu followed by fighter jets.
'He really wanted to die here'
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," Maki Mandela said. "And he really wanted to die here."
Throngs of mourners lined the streets as the military carried her father's body home.
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 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."
Having attended ceremonies of remembrance this week, he was planning to attend Mandela's funeral Sunday in Qunu, 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 over 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; 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 during the three days he lay in state, government officials said.
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.
On Sunday afternoon, about 400 family and friends were expected to 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 apartheid.