Gathered on wooden benches under the shade of a mango tree on Saturday, scores of loyal supporters of Mozambique's rebel opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama could barely believe he has died.Dhlakama led Renamo for nearly 40 years, through a bloody civil war and into an era where the party has lawmakers sitting in parliament while also retaining armed fighters.Dhlakama died unexpectedly on Thursday aged 65, leaving his party reeling from shock and struggling to contemplate a future without their talismanic leader.Outside the party's local headquarters in the small town of Dondo, Renamo supporters and former militants mourned their loss and recalled fighting alongside him."We have come together to sing, to pray and to wait for the instructions of the party about the burial arrangements," Bernardo Joao, a Renamo activist told AFP, his voice full of emotion."We believe that Dhlakama came to liberate the people who lived in slavery".Some of the party faithful cried quietly and held their heads in their hands as they grieved in the choking dust next to the main road from Beira city to Zimbabwe.Dhlakama was a central figure in Mozambique's history since independence from Portugal in 1975.He led Renamo, which was then backed by apartheid South Africa, through the deadly civil war against the Marxist-inspired Frelimo government until the conflict ended in 1992.He then evolved Renamo into an opposition party, which failed to take power from Frelimo in elections and again took up arms between 2013 and 2016."If he had fallen during the war, it would have been different, but he survived. He died of an illness," said one mourner, Joao Bernardo. "For us, that is a victory."'Together on the battlefield' Dhlakama - who died of a suspected heart attack - had lived for the last two years at a secret location in the remote mountain scrub of Gorongosa, not far from Dondo.He suddenly fell sick last week and died on Thursday before medical attention reached him.One female mourner told of her days fighting beside Dhlakama."We were together on the battlefield, preparing men to fight against the regime, training them to liberate areas," said Luisa Jequecene, 48.In December 2016, Dhlakama announced a surprise truce with the government in the major first step towards a formal peace deal, and had recently held talks with President Filipe Nyusi.Jequecene said she was uncertain whether the peace process would continue, but vowed that Renamo would survive Dhlakama's death.The party on Saturday named Ossufo Momade as its interim leader until the next congress, which has not yet been scheduled.Another former militant Carlitos Nhambo Vasco, 44, was unapologetic for the violence committed by Renamo when he was a teenage fighter in its ranks."If you find yourself in front of the enemy and you have a weapon, it's up to whoever fires first," he explained, describing Dhlakama as a hero.Renamo was infamous for its use of child soldiers, but Vasco said "at 16, we were already men. Renamo took care of us."Dhlakama will be given an official funeral on Wednesday in Beira before being buried in his home village Mangunde, more than 200km away, the following day."It will be difficult to fill the space he left because he planned everything," said Vasco. "There is no one to replace it, it is an immeasurable loss."* Sign up to News24's top Africa news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO THE HELLO AFRICA NEWSLETTERFOLLOW News24 Africa on Twitter and Facebook.