- Associated Press - Sunday, December 15, 2013

QUNU, South Africa (AP) — South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was buried Sunday in the African ground he loved after a funeral ceremony that included a 21-gun salute and flyovers by military aircraft as well as a eulogy by a traditional leader wearing an animal skin.

Mr. Mandela‘s casket was lowered into the earth after military pallbearers carried it to the family gravesite in the rolling hills of Qunu, the rural village in eastern South Africa that was the childhood home of the anti-apartheid leader, who became the country’s first democratically elected president.

Banyanda Nyengule, head of the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and Qunu, was one of the eyewitnesses to the private burial and said it hit him hard.

SEE ALSO: Traditional tribal rituals performed at Nelson Mandela’s funeral

“I realized that the old man is no more, no more with us, you know,” Mr. Nyengule said. “The moment when the coffin went down into the ground I felt too … emotional.”

South African television showed Mr. Mandela‘s casket at the family gravesite, but the broadcast went to a different scene just before the coffin was lowered at the request of the Mandela family.

It was South Africa’s final goodbye to the man who reconciled the country in its most volatile period.

Several hundred people attended the burial. Earlier, more than 4,000, some singing and dancing, gathered for a funeral service in a huge tent at the family compound of Mr. Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at the age of 95 after a long illness. They sang the national anthem in an emotional rendition in which some mourners placed fists over their chests.

Mr. Mandela‘s portrait looked over the assembly in the white tent from behind a bank of 95 candles representing each year of his remarkable life. His casket, transported to the tent on a gun carriage and draped in the national flag, rested on a carpet of cow skins below a lectern where speakers delivered eulogies.

“A great tree has fallen; he is now going home to rest with his forefathers,” said Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, a representative of Mr. Mandela‘s family, who wore an animal skin. “We thank them for lending us such an icon.”

The tent ceremony was broadcast on big screens in the area, including at one spot on a hill overlooking Mr. Mandela‘s property. Several hundred people gathered there, some wearing the black, yellow and green colors of the African National Congress — the liberation movement-turned-political party that Mr. Mandela had led — and occasionally breaking into song.

Nandi Mandela said her grandfather went barefoot to school in Qunu when he was boy and eventually became president and a figure of global import.

“It is to each of us to achieve anything you want in life,” she said, recalling kind gestures by Mr. Mandela “that made all those around him also want to do good.”

In the Xhosa language, she referred to her grandfather by his clan name: “Go well, Madiba. Go well to the land of our ancestors. You have run your race.”

Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed on Robben Island with Mr. Mandela, remembered his old friend’s “abundant reserves” of love, patience and tolerance. He said it was painful when he saw Mr. Mandela for the last time, months ago in his hospital bed.

“He tightly held my hand; it was profoundly heartbreaking,” Mr. Kathrada said, his voice breaking at times. “How I wish I never had to confront what I saw. I first met him 67 years ago, and I recall the tall, healthy, strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel when we couldn’t do so.”

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