They Gave All for Jesus: Hannelie’s Story
They counted the cost. They knew Christ was worthy, and they willingly put their lives on the line and paid the ultimate price.
Hannelie had expected the Taliban’s attack in Kabul that day. She and other doctors from her clinic had even been put on standby at a U.N. meeting in case of attack. Nothing, however, had prepared her for the Taliban’s actual target.
As Hannelie headed home through Kabul’s traffic-choked streets on Nov. 29, 2014, her driver received a phone call. She could tell from his expression and the way he was talking that something was terribly wrong. Finally, he told her there had been an attack on the building where her family lived and worked.
As they approached her street, police and armored vehicles blocked the way, forcing her to get out and walk the rest of the way to her house. A crowd had gathered outside the building, but no one would let her go inside or tell her what was going on.
A terrible silence hung in the air, and nothing seemed to move. The usual city noises of traffic, horns and barking dogs were strangely absent. As darkness approached, Hannelie noticed that no lights were on in their top-floor apartment. She worried and prayed while awaiting news of her family.
At 5:45 p.m., the silence was shattered by the sound of gunfire, followed by a large explosion. Onlookers in the street scattered for cover.
“I believe that it was when one of the three attackers detonated himself in the hallway of the building,” Hannelie recalled. “I started to cry. Concerned police escorted me away from the scene to a neighbor’s house at the corner of the street, two houses from our own house.”
The sounds of gunfire and more explosions continued for the next hour. Eventually, Afghan police fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at the top floor of the compound, into the apartment where the Groenewald’s lived. The house caught fire and burned until about 7:20 p.m.
Hannelie sat in the dark and stared at the glow of her smartphone, seeking comfort from God’s Word on her Bible app between texts and calls from concerned loved ones.
“I was reading Psalm 91 over and over again and believing that my family was doing OK,” she said. “Somehow, I knew from the extent of what I was hearing that maybe no one was alive, but my brain didn’t want to accept that.”
Answering the Call
Before moving to Afghanistan in 2003, Hannelie and her husband, Werner, had discussed the possibility of dying in the war-torn country. They considered the dangers of raising their two children, Jean-Pierre, then 5, and Rodé, then 3, in a region dominated by the Taliban, knowing their lives would be drastically different from those they had known in South Africa. Yet God’s call was just as real as the dangers they would face, and they knew obedience to Him mattered more than their fears.
Werner and Hannelie led comfortable lives in South Africa. Werner served as senior pastor at a Dutch Reformed Church and Hannelie was a doctor in a trauma unit. While seeking to develop a more insightful prayer life for a particular country, Werner visited Pakistan, never intending to one day live and serve abroad. During the 2002 trip, however, he received a clear call to become the “hands and feet of Christ” in neighboring Afghanistan, which had recently been identified as home to those who planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
After returning to South Africa and sharing his experience with Hannelie, he suggested they travel to Afghanistan with a short-term medical outreach team. Six months later, they visited Pakistan and Afghanistan for two weeks.
“In Peshawar [Pakistan], in a house church meeting on a Sunday morning, we had exactly the same experience,” Hannelie recalled of her first short-term outreach trip. “We felt the touch of the Holy Spirit. It was the first time in my life I experienced this specific touch from the Lord in this way. I just started crying and knew that Afghanistan and Pakistan, wherever in the world the Lord calls you, can be your home.”
The couple spent the last week of their trip in Kabul, serving at mobile medical clinics and working in a few nearby villages. Hannelie vividly recalls her first impression of the city. After 25 years of war, few buildings remained standing, roads were practically nonexistent and the entire infrastructure had crumbled.
“I remember that when I came back, I thought, ‘This country is filthy and poor and ugly; there is really nothing beautiful in this country except for the desert and the mountains and the valleys,’” she said.
Although aware of the dangers of life in Afghanistan, Hannelie said she and Werner trusted in God and viewed their move as an adventure.
“The most difficult thing for me to decide at that stage was because of the children,” she said. “You have a vision for them and you want to help them to get a proper education, and I knew that source wasn’t in Afghanistan. For me, it was a difficult choice to say ‘Yes’ to the Lord for their schooling. We knew there were going to be a lot of challenges along the way.”
In April 2003, they returned to Afghanistan to find a place to live, an aid organization to work with and options for their children. Four months later, they left their friends and family in South Africa behind and moved to Afghanistan.
“My parents and our family thought we were totally crazy to leave a country like South Africa to go to Afghanistan,” Hannelie recalled. “It was their belief that the Lord won’t ever call a family with two small children to go and serve [in this region]. They really tried to keep us in South Africa.”
Still, the certainty of their call sustained them throughout the move. Their church supported their decision, and the Groenewalds saw God providing for them.
“The Lord was so faithful,” Hannelie said. “We raised the money that we needed within two months — everything that we needed to support us on the field. That was just confirmation from the Lord that He wanted us there.”
Hannelie was also developing a deeper relationship with God.
“My spiritual journey with the Lord actually started after our calling to Afghanistan,” she said. “Before going to Afghanistan, I was more secularly oriented — a nominal Christian. I knew about the Lord Jesus. We always attended church on Sunday mornings. We lived our lives as Christians, but that was where it ended.”
A Challenging Life
Afghanistan was a culture shock for the Groenewalds. They found it difficult to connect with people and felt they were being constantly watched by suspicious Afghans.
“In all the challenges we faced, especially for me, trying to integrate my children in a place where there were no resources, I had to trust the Lord,” Hannelie said. “I didn’t understand many things in my life. So many times we asked God, ‘Lord, are we living in the right place? Is this really where You want us?’”
Life was especially hard for their daughter, Rodé. Young girls in Afghanistan are largely homebound, with little freedom to move around. Hannelie, therefore, did her best to make life bearable for Rodé. She and her daughter did everything together, from cooking to homework, and Hannelie saw Rodé developing into a gifted writer who seemed to enjoy anything art related.
Jean-Pierre, described by Hannelie as a “soft bear, a big boy with a soft heart,” always wanted to be a pilot. He practiced with an online flight simulator and befriended pilots with other aid groups in Afghanistan, often joining them on domestic flights. He dreamed of one day studying aviation technology at Moody Bible Institute in Washington state.
Werner remained diligent in the work he felt called to do in Afghanistan. Over the years, he served with various humanitarian organizations, providing leadership training, community development education and English language courses.
“When Werner received his calling, the Lord showed him how his training as a reverend in a church could be precious [in teaching] Afghans about the ways of the Lord,” Hannelie said. “Just for him to be salt and light, and that is what he tried to do. Even in the leadership training seminars he gave, we always tried to sow seeds of truth and the Word into Afghans’ lives.”
Fearless service to Christ became a theme for Werner, and something he spoke of often. In October 2014, Werner spoke at a conference on the subject of “Counting the Cost for Christ.” He ended it by saying, “We die only once. It might as well be for Christ.”
While Werner thrived in his work, God showed Hannelie that she couldn’t put her career first. Although she served at the CURE International Hospital of Kabul and in local medical clinics, she had left behind a successful career in trauma medicine in South Africa.
“In Afghanistan I learned to change [my priorities] firstly to God, then my husband, then my children and then myself and my ministry and my career,” she said. “My main focus in Afghanistan was to support my husband and to be God’s hands and feet to the Afghan people, and also to shine my light and be salt.”
Life for the few thousand Christians in Afghanistan is very difficult. There are no church buildings, so it is nearly impossible for them to meet, worship and pray openly. Afghans who come to know Christ often keep their decision a secret and live in fear of their Muslim families finding out. By law, anyone who leaves Islam can be put to death.
More mature believers, Hannelie said, will share the gospel, but doing so is extremely dangerous.
“They have counted the cost,” she said. “Afghanistan is a dangerous country. We had to count the cost before going to Afghanistan with our small children. We knew that anything could happen, and Afghan believers there also know that anything can happen. They can be imprisoned, killed or beheaded. You have to come to terms with that before you go to a country like that.”
Dying for Jesus
Jean-Pierre and Rodé slept late the day of the attack. Jean-Pierre spent the day in his room listening to music, playing guitar and chatting with friends on social media. He had planned to visit a friend at 3:30 p.m., about the time of the attack. Rodé spent the morning crocheting, working on her computer and playing video games.
Werner arrived at his office at 8 a.m. to prepare for leadership-training classes he was teaching at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. He was teaching the afternoon class when Taliban fighters stormed the building.
At about 3:30 p.m., a neighbor saw three men walking in front of the Groenewald’s house, one wearing a black police officer’s uniform. One of the men then climbed onto the other two men’s shoulders so he could jump over the wall. Once inside, he opened the gate to let the others in.
The gate guard immediately confronted the men, but they shot him to death with a pistol. When Werner heard the gunshots, he ordered the 10 Afghan students in his class to take shelter in Hannelie’s consulting room next door.
After the others had left the conference room, Werner and two Afghan men tried to escape up the stairs. Halfway up, however, they encountered the attackers at a side door that led to the back of the building, so they turned to run back downstairs. “Lord, please help us,” Werner said before being shot twice in the leg and once in the abdomen. He lost consciousness and bled to death within minutes.
The bodies of Jean-Pierre, 17, and Rodé, 15, were found in the Groenewald’s upstairs apartment, in Jean-Pierre’s room. Both had been shot to death with an AK-47.
Two Afghan Christians survived the attack by hiding in the conference room, but one of the men suffered a flesh wound to the leg when the attackers fired blindly into the room with an AK-47.
Six other Afghans had hidden in the consulting room. They tried to barricade the entrance, and one was killed as an attacker fired through the door. Some of the students who survived the attack said they heard a Taliban fighter say, “We killed them all,” meaning the Groenewalds.
After one of the attackers detonated a bomb, killing himself, the surviving Afghans remained in place until police had killed the last two Taliban fighters, at about 7:30 p.m. Twenty minutes later, two co-workers tearfully broke the news to Hannelie that her family had been killed. She sat still, unable to comprehend the news.
“Sleep evaded me that night,” Hannelie recalled. “I felt totally overwhelmed, and so terribly alone. I just couldn’t cry. I wished so much that I could do something to help lift the heaviness, but nothing …”
Still Worth It
Nearly two years after the attack, Hannelie will tell you, “It is well with my soul.” Although it hasn’t been easy for her to find this peace, she knows God has been with her through everything.
Her one regret, she said, isn’t that she survived, but that she wasn’t with her family when they died.
“I wanted to be there, especially with the children, to just embrace them and hold them and face the bullets,” she said.
She’s certain, however, that Christ was with them.
Following the attack, she found evidence of God’s work. The fire that burned their apartment stopped abruptly in front of Jean-Pierre’s room, preventing it from burning her children’s bodies. Hannelie also felt God’s guidance as she worked through her grief and was able to forgive the attackers.
In the months following the attack, Hannelie looked for opportunities to serve elsewhere in the world, but each time God closed the door. For now, she has decided to stay in South Africa, where she uses her medical background to care for the less privileged.
She continues to share her testimony with anyone who will listen, speaking about six times a month in South Africa and elsewhere.
Looking back on her family’s years in Afghanistan, she said it was worth it. She wouldn’t change a thing.
“I don’t think that we will even know 100 percent what the impact is of what we made in Afghanistan through the years,” she said. “I think that we will know that one day, though, when we are in front of the Lord. But I believe that we made an impact on people’s lives. I believe, also, that (my family’s) blood that was shed is like the seed for the Afghan church and that there will be a thousand-fold harvest in the end, because I believe God has the last move.”
Hannelie said she is proud of her family’s obedience to Christ; she knows their sacrifice and service was for God’s glory.
“It is easy for us as Christians to worship the Lord on Sundays in church and praise Him, but it is difficult to have a heartfelt obedience to the Lord and go when He calls you,” she said. “I believe there is a price tag attached to being a real born-again believer. Jesus Christ was persecuted Himself. He was crucified and we, his students, we are nothing better than He is or He was. It will happen to us as well if you really live a lifestyle that is like that of a born-again believer following the Lord in obedience. There will be a price to pay.”
She said the “prosperity gospel” often taught in the West is not something she experienced in Afghanistan.
“For me, on the field, it was a life of sacrifice, difficulty and struggles, and in that the Lord gave us the reward of His presence,” she said. “He revealed Himself to us, who He is.”
Hannelie said she is often asked if she was ever angry with God for the deaths of her family members, and her answer is “never.”
“We had a clear calling,” she said. “We had a mandate with this; we counted the cost. We knew that something like this could happen. God allowed that for a reason.
“I know that they are actually chasing me on to finish the race as well, to finish well,” she continued. “I believe one day Jean-Pierre will say, ‘Mom, what took you so long to get here?’ I believe they are where they are supposed to be, on Jesus’ lap, and I cannot wait to be there as well. But I have to finish this race for the Lord.”