HARARE — A crowd of thousands of Harare residents grew suddenly, eerily silent Wednesday afternoon as an unmarked plane rolled slowly down the tarmac, bringing home the body of the man who many consider the father of Zimbabwe.

The flag-draped casket carrying the body of former President Robert Mugabe was somberly welcomed in Harare by top officials, by the military elite, and by thousands of mourners as it returned to the country that Mugabe ruled for 37 years.

The body of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe arrives back in the country after he died in Singapore after a long illness, Harare, Sept. 11, 2019.

The famously strident leader, who came to power in 1980 as the first leader of post-independence Zimbabwe, vowed he would die in office. He didn’t.

Instead he was forced to resign in 2017 by his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had the support of the military. Mugabe died last week at a hospital in Singapore — an indictment, his critics say, of Zimbabwe's once-admired hospital system, now in tatters after decades of his autocratic rule.

President Emerson Mnangagwa, who was formally elected a year ago, has declared a period of national mourning until the burial.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa stands next to Grace Mugabe, after receiving the body of her husband, former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Harare, Sept. 11, 2019.

“The entire nation of Zimbabwe, our people, across the board, are grieved and are in mourning because the light which led us to independence is no more,” he said, as Mugabe’s widow, Grace, clad head-to-toe in black lace, dabbed at her eyes with tissues. “But his works, his ideology, will continue to guide this nation.”

But Mugabe's final resting place remains up in the air. According to local media, Mugabe's family wants him interred in his rural village, instead of the iconic Heroes’ Acre cemetery. The burial is scheduled for Sunday.

FILE - Zimbabwean Premier Robert Mugabe gives a triumphant salute as he emerges from Parliament following its official opening, May 14, 1980.

And his legacy is similarly in flux. Was he a liberation hero? Or a villain who pillaged the nation’s economy? Or both? Zimbabwe’s citizens are still trying to figure that out, and may be for years to come.

But as the sun set over Harare Wednesday evening, the city’s normally frenetic residents froze, on street corners, and in their cars. Many drivers got out to see a sight worth stopping for: Robert Mugabe’s funeral cortege, making its way through the heart of the country he once called home.