The Murder of Innocents

A tragic triple shooting in Kabul highlights the increasing danger to aid workers in the Afghan capital.


KABUL — Dr. Hannelie Groenewald was supposed to see patients on Sunday, Nov. 30, but at the last minute her medical clinic asked her to work on Saturday, usually her day off. She did.

It meant she wasn’t with her family when the Taliban killed her husband and two teenage children.

Around 4 p.m. Saturday, just when Dr. Hannelie, as she is known, was leaving work, three Taliban gunmen stormed the compound where she lived with her husband and two children, Jean-Pierre, 17, and Rode, 15. It’s where her husband, Werner Groenewald, 46, ran Partnership in Academics & Development, a charity that provides educational resources to Afghans, and where he ministered to locals as a Christian pastor.

She drove up to find the area around her house blockaded by Afghan police, the fight still in full swing. When a staffer called to check on her, Dr. Hannelie said, “The Taliban are in my courtyard. I can’t get in. There’s gunfire and explosions.”

At 11:30 p.m. she learned that her husband, children, and an Afghan colleague were dead. Everything in their house was burned to ashes. Insurgents shot her husband and then her children as they tried to run away.

The unprovoked murder of the Groenewald family is one of a dozen Taliban assaults in Kabul that have terrorized the heavily fortified city in the last few weeks, showing the Taliban’s resilience and determination. Earlier Taliban attacks targeted Afghan security forces and high-profile Afghans, including a prominent female member of Parliament and the city’s police chief. Though the attackers didn’t successfully bring down their targets, four others were killed.

The two most recent attacks in Kabul zeroed in on foreign aid workers, prompting many foreign guesthouses to go into a lockdown mode, with limited movement in the city.

The spate of suicide bombings and armed raids come as the United States and NATO are winding down their combat operations and reducing troop levels. Analysts say they are also tied to the Afghan Parliament’s recent ratification of the Bilateral Security Agreement, which guarantees that 9,800 U.S. troops and 2,000 NATO troops will stay in Afghanistan after the combat mission officially ends on Dec. 31. Initially, the troops were to stay only to continue training Afghan security forces, but President Barack Obama recently ordered them to continue airstrikes and continue supporting Afghan combat activities. Another theory is that the Taliban’s stepped-up attacks are meant to undermine the newly formed government led by President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in September.

The surge in violence isn’t limited to Kabul. On Nov. 23, a suicide bomber killed 61 people at a volleyball tournament in eastern Afghanistan. And on Dec. 1, a suicide bomber disrupted a funeral in northern Afghanistan, killing at least nine.

The Taliban targeted the Groenewald compound, a spokesman said in a statement, because it was “a secret Christian missionary and foreign invader’s intelligence center.” But it wasn’t a secret mission. The Groenewalds never hid their faith.

Dr. Hannelie and her family are Christians who came to Kabul 12 years ago because of her husband’s job. She worked two days a week at a local clinic so she could home-school her children, who just last week had finished their exams in a South African curriculum.

The Groenwald family, DATE, LOCATION.

The Groenewald family in Kabul.

“I cried like a baby this morning,” said Nazir Zwan, who works at the clinic. “What did Dr. Hannelie do? Nothing but help people. Dr. Hannelie’s life is destroyed.”

Her son, Jean-Pierre, had planned to study in America. He and his father liked to mountain bike around the steep Kabul hills to keep fit. “The mountain dividing Kabul has a challenging road over a lower part, where the 3 km slope to the top is just enough to raise your hair when you look at it from a distance,” wrote Werner Groenewald in a newsletter asking for prayers and money for the ministry. “Huffing and puffing uphill leads to a great reward when you reach the top and can see Kabul stretching out to both sides.”

In the spring letter, Werner Groenewald said he was teaching Afghans Greek and Hebrew in Dari through his seminary. He conducted monthly seminars for rural church leaders, which is unusual in a country that is almost 100 percent Muslim.

“People may ask what the purpose is for teaching Greek and Hebrew to a bunch of Afghan believers,” he wrote. “Being able to read and understand the original language would enable better understanding of the biblical message…. We go for excellence in the training of leaders to empower the church in Afghanistan.”

Dr. Hannelie and her family lived an unusual life in Kabul. For expats, the minute you set foot inside this country, security teams warn you to keep a low profile, to never freely roam the streets, and for women, to always keep your head covered. She became my physician this year. The first time I met her I was shocked to hear that she had a driver’s license. She told me her children rode their bicycles around their neighborhood and had Afghan friends. She often drove herself to work, something that is unheard of even for Afghan women, most of whom do not drive. At the time, I thought, “Wow, she lives here like most of us expats wish we could live.”

“This woman isn’t afraid of anything,” said a nurse who works with her, who for security reasons requested that her name not be used. “She loves everyone and treats them the same. She is a really devout Christian who told me, ‘I’m not afraid. When I go, I know where I’m going.’”

Dr. Hannelie may have realized the imminent danger to her family, but she was determined to continue her work, regardless. “Her patients talk to her like she was Afghan,” said another woman who works in the clinic. “She dresses like an Afghan and speaks the language. All day clients have been calling to ask what they can do.”

Whether Dr. Hannelie will now leave Kabul or not isn’t known. She’s part of a strong Christian community here, said the clinic nurse. “If it were me, I wouldn’t stay,” she said. “But she has deep ties to the Christian community. From a business point of view, it would be devastating for our female clients. But that is really, really secondary. She has suffered a tremendous loss. We just want to support her.”

Her family’s deaths and other attacks have created a reign of terror in Kabul, with many NGOs reassessing security plans, dramatically limiting movement, and, in some cases, evacuating aid workers.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers; charities and NGOs are increasingly citing security concerns and sending their staff out of the country. So far, not one has announced plans to pull out completely, although the charity group Werner Groenewald directed will shut down.


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