HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Controversy over where and when former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will be buried and a stampede which injured several people trying to view his body marred the mourning for the deceased leader Thursday.
A crowd insisting to see Mugabe’s face in the partially opened casket surged past a police cordon, causing a crush in which several were injured at Rufaro Stadium in the capital’s poor Mbare neighborhood where thousands had come to view his body.
“I want to see my father,” said Margaret Marisa, 63, one of those who pushed their way into the line. “I was a collaborator who supported him in the war against Rhodesia. I have supported him ever since.”
At least five people were carried away on stretchers and the severity of their injuries wasn’t immediately clear. Others limped away or were treated by Red Cross medics on the field. Riot police later restored order, at times using batons to strike those pushing to get into the line.
Mugabe’s widow, Grace, sat on a podium to the side of the sports field where Mugabe’s casket was under a tent at the center. The event was marked by singing and drumming of traditional songs of bereavement.
The casket was open to allow a view of Mugabe’s face, eyes closed and calm. Even the most raucous youths who were in the crush were subdued after walking single file past the casket.
“This man was a legend. He played a pivotal role in our lives,” said John Chiwashira, 36, a member of the National Youth Service. “I saw his face. He was asleep.”
A military helicopter later landed on the field and carried away the coffin with Mugabe’s widow, wearing a black veil, at its side. The casket was returned to Mugabe’s Blue Roof house in the capital.
The dispute between Mugabe’s family and the government has overshadowed arrangements for Zimbabweans to pay their respects to the late leader.
Mugabe will not be given a state burial on Sunday at the national Heroes’ Acre site, family spokesman Leo Mugabe announced Thursday. The burial will be a private, family affair, he said to press outside Mugabe’s Blue Roof house.
“There have just been discussions between President Mnangagwa and Mai (Mrs.) Mugabe and it would look like nothing has changed,” said the ex-president’s nephew. “The family … said they are going to have a private burial. We don’t want the public to come. They don’t want you to know where he is going to be buried. We are not witnessing burial on Sunday, no date has been set for the burial.”
The announcement came after President Emmerson Mnangagwa met with Mugabe’s widow, Grace, and other family members to try to resolve the burial dispute.
Instead of an interment on Sunday, Mugabe’s body will be on view to the public at a place near Mugabe’s birthplace in Zvimba district, said Leo Mugabe, who added that the family had not decided if he would be buried in Zvimba.
Speaking at the Mugabe house, Mnangagwa said his government would respect the family’s wishes over the burial, saying they have “the full support of the government. Nothing will change.”
The ongoing uncertainty of the burial of Mugabe, who died last week in Singapore at the age of 95, has eclipsed the elaborate plans for Zimbabweans to pay their respects to the former guerrilla leader at several historic sites.
The burial dispute has also highlighted the lasting acrimony between Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s wife and other family members. Mugabe was deposed in November 2017 by Zimbabwe’s military and his former ally Mnangagwa. Grace and other family members still resent his ouster, apparently resulting in their refusal to go along with state burial plans.
Shortly after Mugabe’s death, Leo Mugabe said the former strongman died “a very bitter man” because he felt betrayed by Mnangagwa and the army generals who were his allies for close to four decades before they put him under house arrest and forced him to resign.
It has long been taken for granted that Mugabe would be buried at Heroes’ Acre monument, a burial place reserved for top officials of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party who contributed to ending white colonial rule.
Mugabe had overseen the construction by North Korea of the monument atop a prominent hill and featuring a grandiose towering sculpture of guerrilla fighters. Mugabe gave many speeches at the site and his first wife, Sally, is buried there next to a gravesite long reserved for the ex-leader.
Mugabe’s casket will be displayed to the public at several sites. It will also be shown Friday at Rufaro Stadium.
On Saturday a ceremony will be held at the National Sports Stadium, which several African heads of state and other prominent officials are expected to attend. Supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party are being bused from all over the country to go to the stadium ceremonies.
Grace Mugabe is expected to stay beside the casket the entire time.
Earlier Thursday at Blue Roof, Mugabe’s 25-bedroom mansion in Harare’s posh Borrowdale suburb, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader paid his respects to the man who had been his bitter political foe.
“I am here to do the African thing that is expected … to pay honor,” said Nelson Chamisa, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party.
“In politics we have had many differences but we are here to reflect on his contribution. … We are here to pay condolences to the Mugabe family, all Zimbabweans and indeed the whole of Africa. It is only fair and necessary to see that we unite to see that he is given a decent burial and a peaceful send off. Today is a day of mourning.”