Cape Town - She missed her daughter’s first steps, her first words and her first day of school. Celeste Nurse spent her daughter Zephany’s first birthday in tears, wondering where she was and whether she had a good home.
But the pain of 17 years apart seemed to be swallowed up in a single word.
“Mommy,” said Celeste, smiling and fighting back tears. “To hear that (from her) for the first time, I was like… Oh my God.”
Dressed in a black leather jacket, Celeste was dwarfed by the polished wood interior of SABC’s Sea Point auditorium on Wednesday. Together with her husband Morné – the pair have been divorced for a while – and a lawyer, this press conference was their swansong in the spotlight, they said. They needed space to process everything and work on their relationship with their daughter.
With lights and cameras trained on them, the couple squeezed each other’s hands and shared a quick smile.
Last month they were reunited with Zephany Nurse who, in 1997, just three days old, had been stolen from her mother’s arms as she was sleeping at Groote Schuur Hospital. The reunion was something they had hoped for, but never quite expected.
Zephany was raised by her kidnapper, a 50-year-old woman from Lavender Hill, a new family bustling around her “giving her everything she needed”, they would later tell the Cape Argus.
With a new name and a new identity, she was oblivious to her biological family’s despair.
By 2010 the Nurses had come to terms with their loss, said Morné, at least a bit. But every year they still celebrated Zephany’s birthday, a collection of flickering candles counting her age. Most birthdays were captured in pictures by the Cape Argus, the faces of parents joined over the years by their subsequent three children.
They smiled for the camera, but behind the pictures things were falling apart. Morné said losing a child put a strain on such a young couple. He would open the paper, see stories of children raped, mutilated and or kidnapped and trafficked across the world.
It was all too easy to picture Zephany among the dead and the lost.
“But we never gave up hope,” said Celeste. “It was like a burning sensation… Somehow we always knew she was still there. Not once did we feel that she was gone.”
It was amazing chance that led them back to her. Zephany’s biological sister had started at a new school in Retreat. She was in Grade 8, but bore an uncanny resemblance to the matric pupil.
A few conversations with the pupil and Morné was convinced she was his daughter.
He called the police, after which DNA tests confirmed his suspicions and the Lavender Hill woman was arrested. The lives of two families and a 17-year-old were turned upside down as Zephany was taken into a safe house.
It’s a story the Nurses have sold to numerous media houses, not only in South Africa but as far as Britain and Germany.
The kidnapper was released on bail on Friday, but it’s a small freedom outside the Woodstock police station cells. She may not contact Zephany, or even return home. She returns to court on May 29.
To Morné she will just be “the kidnap lady”. He said while he believed in forgiveness, years of pain were too difficult to forget and he was unable to speak to her.
The pair are in constant contact with Zephany on BBM. It’s their challenge now, bonding over the digital divide.
For Celeste it is enough for now that Zephany is calling them “mommy and daddy”, a sign that she is ready to accept her biological parents into her life.
Meanwhile, Sapa-AP reports that Morné wants to talk to the parents of Madeleine McCann, the British child who went missing during a holiday in Portugal in 2007, days before her fourth birthday.
He said he had never given up hope Zephany was alive, and wanted to tell the McCanns the same thing. “I’m trying to get a hold of the mother. What we wanted to tell them is… never give up.”
Celeste said: “All they have to do is just believe and pray and have hope.”
* This article has been updated after it was incorrectly reported that Celeste and Morné Nurse were separated. In fact, according to their attorney, they are divorced.