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Behind the scenes: In horror, comes perspective

'Funeral' of three Sri Lankan children hits close to home

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news. Here, CNN correspondent Stan Grant recalls one particularly heart-wrenching moment while reporting the tsunami story in Sri Lanka.

Stan Grant
Grant on discovering the three young bodies: "In those moments, you stop being a reporter."
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Sri Lanka

NORTHERN SRI LANKA (CNN) -- -- It was our first night on the ground here in northern Sri Lanka, a part of the country that is very much a rebel stronghold. It's held by the Tamil Tigers, which won this territory after a 20-plus-year civil war against the national government in the south.

We heard there was a lot of damage here. We heard that many people had been killed in the tsunami. But, at first, we couldn't get here. This area was very much cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka.

It was difficult for any broadcaster to actually get through the border, but we managed to do it. We were actually the first broadcast crew to get here and report from the ground.

I was only here for about an hour or so when the full enormity of this story hit me.

We become a bit numb really to the big picture, the big images. We see the endless rows of bodies lying down on the ground and the hundreds of thousands of casualties. It affects you, but somehow it looks remote. It looks distant.

We were traveling with a group of Tamil Tigers, who were collecting the bodies of the dead from one area that had been devastated. And we came across a group of bodies in the distance.

From where I stood, I could see that they were children. No more than babies really, aged maybe between 1 to 3. From a distance, it just really didn't look real. They looked almost like mannequins or dolls.

But as we got closer, I saw their arms were locked around each other. They were hanging on to each other.

Their bodies had been tossed in the torrent ... as it came through. Somehow these three little kids had hung together and died together.

In those moments, you stop being a reporter. The tools of our trade, the objectivity and the distance that we need to be able to do our job effectively in most cases desert you. Being a reporter just doesn't cut it anymore.

I remember standing there, looking, and I couldn't help thinking about my own children. I have three little boys of my own. And I know I look in on them sometimes before they are about to go to bed, and they are often lying there and they have their arms around each other.

Looking at these three little children, with their arms around each other, reminded me so much of my own kids. And I started thinking about the little things that matter.

As I stood there, I actually started to broadcast live. I had a phone into one of the programs and Richard Quest, one of our London anchors, was on the other end of the line. As I was speaking to him, the bulldozer came through and lifted up those three bodies.

They stacked the wood about a meter or so high and placed these bodies on the funeral pyre. I remember standing there, live on air, describing this scene, trying to do my job as a reporter, which was just futile. I had stopped being a reporter. I was a father. I remember getting to the end of it and just not knowing anymore what to say.

Richard came on and he said [this] is a very solemn moment, there's nothing I can ask you. I hung up the phone and at that moment the fire was lit. It was a funeral service.

That is what I was witnessing. A funeral service. No priest. No mourners. No parents. Just three little babies in this barren landscape lifted up onto a funeral pyre and set alight.

I remember then just thinking a little prayer for them and wanting to be with my own family. I tried to ring my wife a few minutes to hear her voice but she wasn't home.

That image -- how it touched me and how it made [this disaster] seem so more real -- distilled what this story is about for me. Down to its basics.

It's not about the hundreds of thousands of people affected and tens of thousands who have died. It's about individual lives. And it's those individual lives now that have to try to go on, that are going to have to survive. They are going to have to find the little things in life to sustain them.

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