Ahmed Al Amshawi was just 17-years-old when he first discovered the underground world of ham radio in his native Baghdad in 1996. A brotherhood of Iraqi men from all walks of life united by a common, clandestine passion: amateur radio communication.
One of Iraq’s first ham radio operators is thought to have been King Ghazi in the late 1930s, paving the way for the rest of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein was in power when Ahmed first picked up the crackling microphone that would connect him to the outside world. The adrenaline rush he felt lives on with him today. So too does the hobby and its enthusiasts.
“It’s like a drug in the system, once you take it you can’t leave it,” says Ahmed, now 40, sitting at a coffee shop in Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood.
At the time, Saddam’s regime had prohibited ham radio operators from using their equipment – typically a transmitter and a receiver – at home. Instead, licensed operators were made to gather in government-sanctioned communal rooms where they each took turns having conversations with fellow ham radio operators. Meanwhile, the government listened in.
“If you tried contacting foreigners without a licence there would be serious consequences,” says Ahmed.
If caught without a licence while “hamming”, an operator could be accused of espionage. The penalty? Execution.
But even today, 15 years after the fall of Saddam and with the development of a wave of new forms of communication, there remains some 150 licensed ham radio operators, proud members of a largely unknown community, inside Iraq.
In the 1990s, Iraq was agonising under the weight of sanctions – a financial and trade embargo issued by the UN in response to Saddam’s hasty invasion of Kuwait. A devastated economy and a severe shortage of food and medication had brought ordinary Iraqis to their knees. Diseases from contaminated water and high rates of malnutrition, especially among children, were common.
Ahmed, like other ham operators, found a way to communicate Iraq’s hardship to the rest of the world. They believed they were providing a vital public service for their fellow Iraqis, he says.
“We relayed messages to the world,” says Ahmed, whose call sign was YI1AHC. Call signs were used as a means to identify transmitters. YI stood for Iraq, A stood for Ahmed and HC for Hotel California – the song made famous by the Eagles that he was particularly keen on.
Ham radio operators were soon amplifying Iraq’s call for help and the response was instant. People from all over the world reached out to Baghdad’s team of “hams” in hope that they could lend a helping hand.
Operators had to be careful about how they communicated the country’s plight and life under the regime to listeners outside of Iraq – ham radio rules don’t allow operators to discuss politics, religion or business and Saddam’s men were always listening in.
“They would ask us what the hospitals needed and how they could help, how they could get it through without getting into trouble,” Ahmed recalls of the non-Iraqis he was in contact with.
“Many campaigns began, they showed their support,” he continues. “We spoke to Americans about the humanitarian situation, most of them sympathised with us.”
Through a fellow ham radio operator in Germany, Ahmed tracked down diabetes medication for a family member. But the medicine never made it past strict customs controls.
“You felt like you were teaming up with the international community to achieve something. Us, who were so isolated,” says Mohammad, a 48-year-old engineer who asks that his full name not be used.
“We were kept in the dark for so long,” Ahmed adds.
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As well as their bid to alleviate the suffering of Iraqis, the hobby also helped the operators shake the claustrophobia brought on by the combination of crippling sanctions and an oppressive regime.
“It was a good way to communicate with the world, because we were so isolated,” says Mohammed. “We were the predecessors of the chat rooms.”
Much of Iraq’s youth, explains Mohammed, wanted to leave the country. “There were always wars and we had an idea of the western world as modern.”
But he never had the chance to escape Saddam’s rule. Instead, his decades-old friendships with foreigners meant he was able to learn a series of languages such as English, Italian and German.
“Learning about other cultures get you more knowledge to be a better person,” said Ahmed.
After the fall of Saddam in 2003, operators were issued home licences, allowing them to communicate from the privacy of their own houses. But the US forces that occupied the country and a new Iraqi government remained suspicious of the operators at a time when a militant insurgency was tearing at the country from within.
Ahmed’s first radio communication from his home was with an operator in the US state of Alaska in 2003. Soon after, the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq forced his family out of the neighbourhood.
During the chaos that ensued, Ahmed lost his contact notebook. In it were the thousands of call signs and names of the friends he had made throughout the years.
He never recovered them. But today, he is intent on rebuilding a new list of contacts as he continues to "ham" in his Baghdad home.
“It’s not just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” said Ahmed. “You get to know new people every time you go on air. Some of them become your best friends and even reach the level of family.”