Radio ‘hams’: The legacy of Iraq’s amateur operators lives on

A community of clandestine radio enthusiasts remains active inside the country

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….READ MORE



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