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The buildup of forces in Afghanistan is complete, with the number of US troops there the highest yet. The surge is part of President Obama’s campaign to take the battle to the Taliban strongholds in the south and east, while accelerating training of Afghan security forces. In February, suicide attacks by militants increased, and villagers and Afghan officials accused NATO of killing a large number of civilians in airstrikes. The images in this month's post show Afghans and NATO-led soldiers working and living through moments of sheer terror and numbing poverty. Through the strife, we see glimpses of the enduring human spirit. --Leanne Burden Seidel (39 photos total)
An Afghan army recruit marches during a graduation parade after an oath ceremony at Ghazi military training center in Kabul Feb. 3. Strengthening the abilities of Afghan forces to secure their country has been a top goal of US policy. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

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In June 2010, a team of scientists and intrepid explorers stepped onto the shore of the lava lake boiling in the depths of Nyiragongo Crater, in the heart of the Great Lakes region of Africa. The team had dreamed of this: walking on the shores of the world's largest lava lake. Members of the team had been dazzled since childhood by the images of the 1960 documentary "The Devil's Blast" by Haroun Tazieff, who was the first to reveal to the public the glowing red breakers crashing at the bottom of Nyiragongo crater. Photographer Olivier Grunewald was within a meter of the lake itself, giving us a unique glimpse of it's molten matter. (The Big Picture featured Olivier Grunewald's arresting images of sulfur mining in Kawah Ijen volcano in East Java, Indonesia, in a December 2010 post.) -- Paula Nelson (28 photos total)
The view from the volcano’s rim, 11,380 feet above the ground. At 1,300 feet deep, the lava lake has created one of the wonders of the African continent.

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With hundreds still missing, and 75 already confirmed dead, rescuers struggled to find survivors on the second night after a devastating earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city Tuesday. Buildings crumbled into the streets after the 6.3 magnitude earthquake, which geologists consider an aftershock to a 7.1 earthquake that caused no casualties in September. Tuesday’s temblor was more devastating and deadly because it was centered only six miles from the city's center and hit during the middle of a workday. The Government has declared a national state of emergency. Officials estimated there could be 100 people trapped in the CTV building alone. -- Lane Turner (36 photos total)
The 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the early afternoon Tuesday in Christchurch, prompting New Zealanders to flee into the streets as others rushed to the collapsed buildings in attempts to rescue those trapped in the rubble. (Iain McGregor/Christchurch Press/Reuters)

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