HARARE - Zimbabweans paid their respects Thursday as the body of former President Robert Mugabe lay in state at a Harare stadium and flags whipped at half-staff across the nation he ruled for 37 years.
Mugabe's body was transported by helicopter to the main sports stadium for public viewing, but the 45,000-person capacity venue was slightly more than half full of mourners.
As thousands rushed to view the body lying in an open casket, a resulting stampede injured several people. At least five people were reported to have been carried away on stretchers.
Meanwhile, top officials met with the Mugabe family at the palatial Blue Roof residence, in what appeared to be ongoing negotiations between the family and the government about where — and when — he will be buried.
Mugabe's family told local media on Thursday they're considering a private, rural burial in which no details will be provided to the public. The government had previously indicated he would be buried at Harare's Heroes' Acre cemetery.
His body arrived in Zimbabwe on Wednesday, five days after he died in a Singapore hospital at age 95.
Many Harare residents told VOA they wouldn't go to pay their respects to Mugabe — even though many such residents are unemployed and say they could if they wanted to do so. Mugabe was the first president of independent Zimbabwe, and until he resigned under pressure in 2017, he was the only leader the nation had known.
In the heart of Harare, feelings are deep — and mixed.
'Mugabe ruined our life'
Twenty-eight-year-old Kelvin Sambana, who describes himself as a hustler, says he has no plans to pay his respects.
"Why? Because Mugabe ruined our life," he told VOA. "Ruined our future. I am an educated person, as you can see. I have a degree. But I am here, selling cellphones, changing money, doing nothing. So why should I go to that funeral? He ruined my life. I can celebrate that he's dead and gone. Gone forever! That's why I can be happy."
But things have changed. Under Mugabe, it was illegal to insult the president. Not that Ignatious Nyamhunga, an unemployed 35-year-old who comes from Zvimba, the same rural village as Mugabe, would ever do that, he says.
Nyamhunga says he won't go to a memorial service Saturday in Harare, but he will go home for the Sunday burial if Mugabe has a rural burial.
"We've got this saying, 'afanaka,'" he said. "If anybody dies, he's now a good person. ... We can't talk anything bad about that someone, that's the thing. So regardless of the fact of his evil deeds, whoever is dead, whatever he did wrong, he's always good, he's now a good person, God receives him with open arms, and stuff."
Mugabe is viewed by many as the man who liberated Zimbabwe from British rule in 1980. Many also view him as the man who drove the economy of this once-prosperous nation into the ground.
Teacher Judith Mukuta, 55, says her feelings about the man are far less complicated. Mukuta says she will probably go to the memorial service at the stadium on Saturday.
"He wasn't bad," she said. "It's unfortunate, things were bad. Because he liberated us, he was a hero."
'I don't feel anything'
Still others say they are ambivalent, like the 35-year-old comedian who asked to be referred to him by his stage name, the Comic Pastor.
"I don't feel anything," he said. "Because why should we cry? We are unemployed. In 2008, people were being beaten on our faces, so why should we cry?"
Instead, he invited Zimbabweans to do the opposite.
"My best Mugabe joke is: Whenever we had elections, the Zimbabwe Election Commission would start by announcing results from the urban areas. They would start like, 'Harare Central Constituency. Tsvangirai, Morgan Richard, MDC: 6,812 votes. Mugabe, Robert, ZANU-PF, 0.' Then they would go in all urban areas. Then, at last, they would go to Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe constituency: 'Mugabe, Robert Gabriel, 1.8 billion, nine-hundred …'"
The gathered crowd around him collapsed in raucous laughter.
Thirty-four-year-old Tiko Kambara, who also calls himself a hustler, says the 1.5 million residents of Harare are more sentimental than they let on. He says they miss the man they call by his clan name, Gushungo.
"I've got a video, which I took yesterday, when people thought the body was going to his house. In less than two minutes, all the road was full of people, cheering, 'Gushungo, Gushungo, Gushungo!' In less than two minutes, the road was full of people. So I can't say that people in Harare didn't like him. When he's going to be buried in his rural area, there will be thousands of people. I promise you."