A South African mother whose stolen baby was found 17 years after being abducted spoke Monday of the pain of losing all but a few months of her daughter’s childhood.
“It hurts to know that 17 years have been taken; it just hurts so much," Celeste Nurse said. "You can’t ever get them back.
“The foundation that has been born, the first step, the first time when she said, 'Mother,' the bond, the closeness, when she falls I pick her up. That’s not there. That’s been taken away.”
Yet Nurse said she had forgiven the woman who allegedly stole her daughter, Zephany, from a maternity ward in Cape Town in 1997.
“If you don’t forgive, how’s your life going to move on? You’re going to be stuck in the darkness," she said. "So even if I see her, I will even give her a hug and I will say, ‘Thank you for raising my daughter. She’s beautiful inside and out. She’s gorgeous.’”
The woman is facing charges that include kidnapping and fraud. To shield the daughter from being identified, authorities have not identified the woman by name. Zephany has been identified only by her first name.
Nurse and the child's father, Morne Nurse, told their story in a radio interview Monday. The couple are separated but apparently amicable; their marital status is unclear.
They said they never gave up hope that they would find their daughter, who was found when their second daughter, Cassidy, enrolled at the same school as Zephany and noticed the striking resemblance between her and the other girl, a high school senior.
That night Cassidy told her father he must come see for himself. The next day, Morne Nurse, dropping Cassidy at school, watched Zephany from a distance.
“I had this strong feeling, this burning sensation right in the middle of my chest. I saw her from a distance, but we connected eye to eye,” he said. “I think it was a week later when I actually personally went up to her and met her. I told her, 'Zephany, tell me, why do you look like me?' And she burst out laughing. “I said, 'Wow, you look just like Cassidy.’
“I asked her, 'What’s your date of birth? Where were you born?' And I took them to McDonald's where I had coffee, and this is where I started the investigation by scrutinizing social media, getting pictures on her, following her up.”
Cassidy told Zephany how the family had lost a child 17 years earlier. Nurse said Zephany told him she was confused by the attraction she felt toward Cassidy and him.
“I did ask her, ‘What is this confusion that you feel towards me?’ and she couldn’t explain it. She just said, ‘Cassidy, you, I look at you, I want to be with you.’
“That’s when I told her, ‘The feeling is mutual.’ But I didn’t go into any discussion with her. I didn’t want to scare her away.”
Nurse reported the case to police. The Nurse family insisted on a DNA test, which revealed Zephany was their daughter, raised by a couple who had no other children, but who lived a few miles from their home.
Zephany was taken into protective care, and the woman who allegedly abducted her was arrested and charged. She is out on bail after a hearing Friday and will appear in court in May.
“I never gave up hope," Celeste Nurse said. "I prayed every night not just for Zephany but for every child to be returned. I always knew in my heart that she was close, but I never believed that it was so close, yet so far.”
She said when Morne Nurse sent her a photograph of Zephany, she knew it was her daughter.
“I burst into tears. I said, 'That’s my daughter, no doubt.'”
The first time Celeste Nurse met her grown daughter was in a conference room, in a meeting arranged by government social workers.
“I didn’t know what to expect, how to act, what to tell her. Morne walked in first. When she saw Morne, she ran to Morne and she hugged him. And when she saw me, I burst out into tears and she held me tight. And everyone in the room burst into tears. The feeling was overwhelming and I said, ‘Wow, I’ve been searching for you for 17 years. Finally you are home.’
“But it’s not easy. It’s a difficult situation. A lot of people’s lives are affected, my kids as well. It’s difficult for her to adapt. It is very difficult for her because for 17 years, you live with those parents, the trust is there. Now all of a sudden the trust is broken.”
On April 28, when Zephany turns 18, she will be an adult and entitled to make her own choices about which family she lives with.
Morne Nurse is convinced that she will choose the Nurses over the people who raised her.
“I think from her side, I can see from the messages I’m getting daily, there’s acceptance," he said. "She misses us, and just the bond that’s there. They say blood is thicker than water. Eventually she will just come entirely over to us, I believe.”
But Celeste Nurse said that if Zephany chose to divide her time between the two families, she would accept it.
“It’s going to break my heart most definitely, but I want what’s best for my daughter and I’m going to be part of her life no matter what. Even if she decides, 'I’m going to spend my life with the next family,' I’ll support her. But I’m not going to stop being with her. I’m going to be with her for the rest of her life. I’ve missed out on 17 years,” she said.
When Celeste Nurse sat in court Friday and watched the woman who is accused of stealing her child, she said she felt pity.
“I looked at her and I actually felt sorry for her. I feel sorry for her. She had three miscarriages. Sometimes people do weird things, but there’s reasons why people act in that manner, so who are we to judge?”
But although Morne Nurse said he had forgiven the suspect, he believed she should do prison time.
“Me personally, I’ve got no remorse for what she has to face. Like I said earlier, you did the crime, so go do your time,” he said.
South African news media have reported that the woman’s husband wasn’t aware the child he thought was his daughter had been stolen and that he is listed as a prosecution witness in the case.
“Zephany. She’s a very strong girl," Morne Nurse said. "She’s happy she was found. She told me she can’t believe what they did. They’ve been living a lie all their life with her, so there’s some sort of resentment, I think.
“There’s a lot of guilt coming from her. The guilt that’s inside of her is the guilt of leaving her father, the kidnapping father, so-called, because the bond is there.”
When Morne Nurse looked at the woman accused of taking his daughter during Friday’s court hearing, he said he could see no signs of remorse in her face.
“I wasn’t too happy when I saw that, but what can I say? I mean I have to forgive,” he said.
Follow @RobynDixon_LAT for news from Africa.