I have often wondered what genocide sounds like.
That’s because I have spent weeks at a time making musical recordings with people who have fled violence and persecution. In the fall of 2018, that work took me to a coastal city in southern Bangladesh, now home to one million Rohingya who used to live in Burma (Myanmar). In August 2017, Burmese security forces cracked down on this Muslim minority, killing and raping people before setting fire to their villages.
Mohammed Alom, 25, was the last musician my small team recorded on the trip.
He sat on a stool, his longyi—a scarf-like skirt traditional to the region—hanging below his folded legs. He was too nervous to smile at first, and he started to pluck his mandolin. His eyes flicked from tree to tree near the fishpond where we had set up cameras and microphones.
Then he sang in a voice that was scratchy and warm:
We are the Rohingya nation,
We’ve been orphans for a lifetime.
If our Rohingya community had parents,
we wouldn’t have to leave the country.
We are here, Rohingya nation: mother, father, brothers, sisters.
We don’t have a place in Burma.
Alom made the song in 2012, five years before security forces drove the Rohingya Muslims out of their villages. Like most of the musicians we met on the trip, he sang taranas—poetic verses that recount trauma, history, and feelings about an ambivalent future.
He played the song from memory but forgot a few words. Like so many other Rohingya, he didn’t write down his lyrics because he had never learned to read or write.
The lack of education isn’t surprising, nor is it unintentional. Perpetrators of genocide often seek to dehumanize their victims before the violence starts. One tactic is to deny a community’s basic human rights, including education. Years before Nazi Germany began to systematically murder Europe’s Jews, the German government passed a law that limited the number of Jewish students who could attend public schools.
The restriction of access to education is now recognized as a warning sign of genocide, and it’s often accompanied by constraints of movement, the stripping of citizenship, and rampant hate speech. Together, these serve to reinforce a group’s supposed barbarity—and can eventually enable average citizens to participate in, or become apathetic to, heinous crimes committed against neighbors.
Music can help counteract that process. When a state tries to eradicate an entire people, music can help preserve their culture and identity. Or, as another Rohingya musician told me, “in the lyrics, the history comes.”
In Burma, Alom could see that he had no opportunity, he said. So he traveled by boat to Malaysia. It was a harrowing journey in which passengers ate just one meal a day: a handful of rice, a chili, a small fish, and one cup of water.
He learned how to play the guitar from a fellow Rohingya transplant in Kuala Lumpur. He also worked in construction and supported his family by sending them a portion of his paycheck. His parents were forced to pay the Burmese military a monthly tax because Alom went abroad, he said.
In 2017, Malaysia authorities discovered that he was there illegally and deported him to Bangladesh, where his parents had fled after the military’s attack. “We want to go anywhere where there is peace,” Alom said in between singing songs.
If we had peace in the country,
we wouldn’t have come to this foreign country.
Wouldn’t have brought mother, father, brothers, sisters, relatives
to this country.
We, Rohingya nation, didn’t have any choice.
We are the Rohingya nation.
There is always a moment on the recording trips that leads me to thoughts of my own displaced family. In the 1920s, my Jewish grandfather, Leo Oberman, dreamed of being an opera singer in Europe. But instead of singing on a grand stage, he sang in a train car that deported him and other Jews to a concentration camp.
After the war, survivors told him that his voice brought them a little bit of comfort.
And when I was a child in the 1990s, he used to let me play his fingertips like piano keys. I still remember the words to the Yiddish song he used to sing to me at night, before I fell asleep.
These days, as I look back on my work, I think I have learned what genocide sounds like. First comes a crescendo of hateful words that breed intolerance and dehumanization. Next come the bullets, fire, and mayhem. Often what follows is a deafening silence from countries that do nothing to stop the atrocities.
But sometimes if you listen closely, there is another verse. It’s the sound of survivors, clamoring for justice and recognition as they try to rebuild their lives. I have heard them make beautiful music in exile.