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Translating tragedy

As Missoula watches the Markus Kaarma trial, a nation abroad waits for justice

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Soon after news broke that German exchange student Diren Dede had been shot and killed in a Missoula garage, Karin Assmann boarded a plane and flew to the Garden City. It was early May, and Assmann was on assignment for Der Spiegel, a venerable German magazine based in Hamburg, Dede's hometown. She says the instructions her editors had given her were simple: "We want a story about it." She got more than just a story.

By coincidence, Assmann's trip to Missoula coincided with Celal Dede's trip to recover his son's body. In another coincidence, Celal Dede had a connection to Assmann's employer.

"He happens to be a cab driver for the company that has a contract with Der Spiegel," Assmann says, "so he has driven a lot of the people that work at Der Spiegel."

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Assmann believes this connection was the reason Celal Dede offered to give her the first on-camera interview about Diren's tragic death. It came at the end of a long day, after Celal had identified his son's body and attended a meeting with students, teachers and others in the gym of Diren's school, Big Sky High. While she and a colleague waited for Celal to appear, Assmann says a firearms safety course was being held in a nearby building.

"It was very interesting," Assmann says. "So we stood out there and waited. And then he came out and we were pretty much told, 'Get in the car.'"

In the backseat, as they drove from Big Sky to the hotel where Celal was staying, Assmann interviewed him. When they arrived, they talked more. Throughout, Assmann says, Celal appeared "devastated" but "reflective."

"I asked him—and that's one of the soundbites we aired—I said, 'Who do you blame?'" Assmann says. "Expecting either something like 'the gun laws' or lack thereof or 'the laws' or 'these crazy Americans,' and instead he said, 'I blame myself for letting him go to this country.'"

The story and interview footage were picked up by Der Spiegel's website, Spiegel Online, as well as its weekly televised newsmagazine, "Spiegel TV." (Clips can be viewed online, in German, with Missoula serving as the backdrop.)

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

German viewers and readers were already interested in the case, and Assmann's scoop drew substantial attention. Since then, Der Spiegel and its affiliates have continued to pursue in-depth coverage of the story, interviewing Dede's mother, sister and, most recently, a cousin. And last week Assmann was back in Missoula from Washington, D.C., where she is stationed, to cover the opening days of the trial of Markus Kaarma, Dede's killer.

The first three rows of the courtroom are reserved for the media and, in addition to Assmann, they include a substantial contingent from the German press.

Richard Walker is giving multiple daily reports for Deutsche Welle, a German television company that broadcasts internationally in English. Herbert Bauernebel is there for the German tabloid Bild, one of the most widely circulated European papers. Chris Melzer is covering the trial for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the German equivalent of the Associated Press. Hans Holzhaider is writing for Süddeutsche Zeitung, a prominent Munich-based paper. They represent just part of the German press corps, which is filing stories from the courthouse and elsewhere around town, feeding the German public's seemingly insatiable interest in the story of Dede's killing. According to Melzer, DPA alone had published up to three stories a day on the case since before the trial even began.

Judge Ed McLean of Montana’s Fourth Judicial District Court presides over the trial of Markus Kaarma on charges of deliberate homicide. Kaarma shot and killed Diren Dede, a German exchange student, on April 27. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Judge Ed McLean of Montana’s Fourth Judicial District Court presides over the trial of Markus Kaarma on charges of deliberate homicide. Kaarma shot and killed Diren Dede, a German exchange student, on April 27.

"Millions of Germans go each year to America, millions of Americans have German roots," Melzer says. "We watch American TV. We know so much about America."

Together, the foreign correspondents' countless stories, segments and tweets have informed the way Germans not only see this tragedy, but also America at large. It's a keyhole view of the country's laws, values and culture—all starting with what happened in Kaarma's Grant Creek garage.

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