Awate was born in 1910 in Gerset, located between Tessenei and Omhajer in southwestern Italian Eritrea. His father, a peasant, trained him as early as childhood in the use of guns. Hamid belonged to the Tigre ethnic group, but he reputedly also had some Nara ancestry.
In 1935, Awate was conscripted by the Italians to serve in the colonial army of the Eritrean Ascari. Beside his fluency in Arabic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Nara, Hedareb, and Kunama, Awate learned the Italian language very well within a short period of time and was sent to Rome for a course in military intelligence.
After returning from Italy, he was appointed as a security officer in western Eritrea. Shortly after, he served as deputy chief (Mayor) of the city of Kassala (Sudan) and its surroundings during the brief Italian occupation of that city in 1940/1941 at the beginning of World War II. As Mayor of Kassala he promoted the political union of that city to his country, Eritrea, but the English attack at the end of January 1941 forced him to renounce to it.
He fought as an Eritrean ascari in the Battle of Keren and participated in the Italian guerrilla war in Eritrea against the British and Ethiopians in World War II with the cavalrymen of Ali Gabre.
After the victory of Great Britain against Italy in World War II in Eritrea, Awate settled in western Eritrea but eventually went into a dispute against the British authorities and began an armed campaign against the British presence in Eritrea from 1942 to 1949. Afterwards, Awate and his armed faction came to a truce agreement with the British authorities.
In the meantime the Eritrean independence movement was taking shape and working towards making Eritrea an independent country by peaceful means rather than joining landlocked Ethiopia.
In 1958 a group of Eritrean exiles in Cairo founded the Eritrean Liberation Movement under Awate's leadership.
In July 1960, in the city of Cairo, a group of young Eritrean students and intellectuals held a meeting and formed the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF).
Back home, the Ethiopian authorities were suspicious of Awate’s movements and activities, and were watching him closely. Ethiopian police forces planned to arrest Awate in his village in August 1961. Turkey explains that the Ethiopians deployed a large amount of police forces but their plans were foiled by an Eritrean nationalist within the Ethiopian police who informed Awate earlier of that plan. Awate then fled to Mount Adal located to the west of Agordat.
Awate’s decision to begin armed resistance was reached after a period of long deliberations with other nationalists. In an interview with Eritrea Al-haditha, issue #75, second year, pioneer Mohammed Al-Hassan Dohen, a long time friend of Awate and Awate's assistant when he was district chief, says: "In the year 1960, Idris Mohammed Adem sent a letter to Awate, the letter was written in Arabic. Hamid Awate told me that Idris Mohammed Adem was asking him to declare the armed struggle; but he was not ready for it at that time. After four months, Mohammed Al-Shiekh Daood came and asked Awate to declare the revolution. Awate agreed to lead the armed struggle and declare the revolution but asked for support. Mohammed Al-Shiekh Daood provided Awate with old arms, three five bullet rifles "abu khamsa" and gave him 300 Birr with sugar and tea. In addition, Ibrahim Mohammed Ali brought two rifles and myself owned a rifle. At the beginning we were only seven, then shortly our number had grown to be 13 fighters."
The Ethiopian authorities immediately responded to Awate's declaration. According to Awate’s contemporaries, a military unit in six trucks was sent to apprehend Awate but failed. The Ethiopians resorted to using different tactics to deal with Awate. Mohammed Al-Hassan Dohen indicates in his interview that Omer Hassano and Ejiel Abdulrahman did a last minute appeal to end Awate’s rebellion on August 1961. Awate responded saying: "If you want us to end our armed struggle, then you better lower the Ethiopian flag and raise up the Eritrean flag."
On September 1, 1961, eleven rebels led by Awate attacked police posts in the west of Eritrea include one on Mount Adal. A fierce battle ensued between Awate's and Ethiopian forces, lasting seven hours and ending in a stalemate.
On May 27, 1962, Awate drank milk for dinner, then soon told his unit that he was not feeling well. His condition began to deteriorate, and Awate died on May 28, 1962 aged 52. His death may have been due to wounds inflicted from a recent battle, though some claim it was from natural causes. He was buried near Haykota, Gash Barka.
A statue was erected by the Government of Eritrea on 1 September 1994 at his grave site.
On 16 October 2011, Eritrea’s national hero, Hamid Idris Awate, was honoured by the town of Cologno Monteze near Milan which dedicated a tree in his name in the area within the Aldo Moro Park called “Garden of the Just of the World”. Eritrea’s hero Awate was one of the nine persons who were honoured with dedication of nine trees for their services and sacrifices for justice. Padre Marino Haile was one of the attendants of the ceremony at Cologno Monteze. Many friends of Eritrea attended the ceremony together with Eritrean nationals who included Mr. Kidanemariam Michael, president of the City Council for Peace of Cologno and Dr. Seghid Herui.
Even in Italy Awate is celebrated by the Italo-Eritrean associations.
The image of Awate has primarily functioned as a supplement to the myth of his heroism, which is the story of a man who defied the oppressors of his people. It is the legend of a common man who galloped to the mountain of Adal and shot the first bullet that was followed by freedom fighters from across the country. The photograph might not befit this legend as Awate is seen unarmed and his proud pose is devoid of movement. This might explain changes in latter-day depictions of Awate based on the same image, which portrayed him on his horse with a rifle on his back and a sword in his hands. Such illustrations that show Awate wearing tagiya (the rounded Islamic cap) and traditional lowland costume, manifest the modification of some components of the first image by replacement and addition of certain signifiers. This was also influenced by another photograph of Awate believed to have been taken when he started the armed struggle where he is portrayed mounted on a horse that is not fully shown in the picture. Although the composition and structure of Awate's photograph remain unchanged in latter reproductions, the Italian army outfit has been consistently substituted with particular traditional and religious attires. Awate's sword, which is added in the painted reproductions, serves as a symbol of defiance reflecting the preferred construction of the myth of Awate during the struggle for independence and after.
The signification created by the photograph of Awate has evolved to attain a meaning far exceeding its original significance as glamorized Italian colonial army imagery. Much of the meaning creation has been influenced by the legend and surrounding socio-cultural contextual factors including the local Orthodox Church iconography that adulates similar images of warrior saints on a white horse. Later painted reproductions of Awate's image put on display the preferred meaning making process that substituted the traits of the colonial soldier with those of the local nomad hero with closer ties to his roots and religion.
Although Awate's heroic stature and legend were maintained during the three decades of the war, the Eritrean independence movement did not create iconic imagery of individual heroism. The image of Hamid Idris Awate stands as the sole war icon in the visual discourse of the Eritrean armed struggle for freedom. Despite various individual photographs of fighter men and women produced during the armed struggle, there is a dearth of iconic images of war heroes and leaders, most likely attributable to the preference for collective heroism and persistent evasion of individual heroism in the political culture of EPLF.