While war rages, a 10-year-old genius sticks at his books

Tim McGirk meets the prodigy who picks his way through Kabul's front line to pre-medical school
SAYED Mohammed Azam is a quiet 10-year-old boy whose wide, dark eyes are full of outrage, for he has witnessed much terror and killing in the last three years of war in Kabul. "It's not good being famous in the time of assassins," he says, pouring tea and passing around a plate of dried mulberries. "Anyone who stands out in Afghanistan gets murdered or kidnapped."

Sayed is indeed famous in Kabul: he is a genius living in a war zone. While other 10-year-olds in his neighbourhood think ahead only to the day, not far off, when they can join the warring militias and swagger about with an AK-47, Sayed goes with his father every morning to Kabul University, where he studies biology, physics and chemistry.

"My friends here in the lane all want guns. They want rocket- propelled grenades so they can destroy buildings. I say it's better to rebuild the buildings, brick by brick, but they're against me. They don't know what I mean," Sayed says, gesturing out to the mud-walled houses of Asma- e-Wat, a district in the direct line of fire between the factions battling for Kabul.

The rockets blasted down so hard on Sayed's family at times that they didn't know whether it was safer to stay inside their house or run outside. So they did both, scrambling in and out of the house, while Sayed's grandmother, Bibi, held a Koran up to the sky and prayed for the holy book to shield them.

For there to be even one promising child to rise from Kabul's ruins is a miracle. It is a bombed-out, devastated city overrun by gunmen who have looted everything they could and destroyed what they could not steal. Sayed's father, Mohamed Iqbal, a clerk in the aviation ministry, earns around 80,000 Afghanis (pounds 7) a month. With a three-month siege imposed by Taleban rebels around Kabul, food prices have soared. One kilo of meat costs nearly half of Mohamed Iqbal's monthly pay. So they don't eat meat. Often they don't eat at all.

Not only have all of Kabul's mosques, museums and libraries been smashed, but the repository of culture in people's minds is vanishing too. Many of Kabul's writers, musicians and professors have fled to Pakistan, where they sweep streets. Most government schools have been closed for more than three years. And at road checkpoints, many of the snarling young militiamen who demand identification snatch the papers and examine them upside down; unable to read.

Sayed astonished his parents by learning the Russian alphabet at the age of two and a half. He started school at three. At four, he jumped a year every month until he reached the 8th grade. His classmates now in pre-medical school are in their 20s and early 30s, all men with beards. On the first day of the term, the mujahedin guarding the gates refused to let him in. "Go away, boy, this isn't playschool," said one fighter.

His father refuses to let him go alone to university. Sayed must pass through an area where, for mile after mile, every house and building has been destroyed and heavily mined. Mujahedin bunkers stand every few hundred yards, and lone boys are often grabbed and forced to do everything from scrubbing down tanks to submitting to sexual abuse.

The university campus is also filled with landmines, and as Sayed sits in his classroom taking notes (all textbooks have been stolen), the lecturer is often interrupted by an ominous explosion outside. It is usually a child, someone Sayed's age, who has stepped on a mine while collecting firewood.

"One day I was in class, and the rockets started falling very, very near," Sayed says. "There was no place to hide except under our desks. When I went outside, there were bodies everywhere on the road, people I'd seen alive just a few minutes before. Only Allah knows when peace will come to Afghanistan - I think only when the mujahedin put down their Kalashnikovs and those with pen and paper take over."