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Shock and loss in Sri Lanka

By Paul Sussman for CNN

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Sri Lanka

POLONNARUWA, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- People here seem bewildered by the enormity of what has happened to their country.

Sri Lankan military officials say more than 18,000 people died on the island nation.

Everywhere you go small crowds are huddled around radios and television sets silently absorbing the news, blank faced, as if unable to comprehend what they are seeing and hearing.

The devastation might be limited to coastal regions, but the sense of shock and loss is universal. This is a small country, one in which almost everyone knows, or is related to someone who was caught up in the mayhem.

"I have five friends who live in Galle," says Rohinta, a tour guide at Polonnaruwa in east-central Sri Lanka. "All are finished (dead). Their mothers and children finished too."

Tuchera, a driver from Kandy in the centre of the island has likewise lost friends.

"I know at least two fellow drivers who died in Yala," he says. "I am expecting to hear of many more."

It is a tragedy that has united the country, both in grief and also in determination to do everything possible to help those who have, and are suffering.

In Buddhist and Hindu temples, churches and mosques prayers are being offered for the dead and injured.

On buildings everywhere, from factories to schools, army bases to roadside shacks, people have hung white flags and banners, the tradtional Buddhist emblem of mourning and condolence.

Across the island collections are being taken for those who have lost everything, vans with PA systems driving around calling on people to give whatever they can. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flock to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils.

"I will be stopping work early today," says Ashoka, a policeman from Giratele, "And driving a truck with food, blankets and medicine over to Trincomalee.

"We all have to do whatever we can."

And it's not just Sri Lankans who have been effected by the disaster. In hotels and guest houses tourists talk of little else, sharing tales of how they had just left the coast, or were about to go to it, talking into their mobile phones, reassuring families they are safe, trying to get news of friends who were in the affected areas.

"It's terrible, unbelievable" says John, a English holidaymaker in Sigiriya. "I was due to go down to Tangalle the day after the waves hit. I can't stop thinking what would have happened if I'd been there. You just feel so desperately sorry for the people who lost loved ones.

"We're trying to re-arrange our holiday plans, but how can you have a good time when you know what is happening all around you?"

There is a Buddhist saying in Sri Lanka: "Life is no more than a dewdrop balancing on the end of a blade of grass." The events of December 26 have shown just how precarious that balance is.

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