The month is April and year 1997. For many South Africans, it’s a month to be remembered and jubilantly celebrated for decades to come. It’s the first time after 300 years of colonial rule they get to assert their humanity and freedom by casting their votes in South Africa’s first non-racial election. Many come from far across the region to take in the festivities, but for a couple in the maternity ward at Groote Schuur hospital, it is a time of sorrow. A moment of emptiness that will reverberate throughout the rest of their days.
On April 28th, 1997 Celeste Nurse gave birth to a brown-eyed baby girl named Zephany. Morné Nurse celebrated the birth of his first-born with his wife. For months they’d been waiting for this moment. Back home, they had a nursery painted in cheerful blue, gold, and white waiting for their little daughter, but Zephany never made it home. Celeste spent three days holding her newborn child in her arms – enough time to name her Zephany and bond with the baby girl. On the third day, she disappeared.
Celeste had undergone a C-section and was heavily drugged on pain medication. Before dozing off, she recalled a woman dressed as a nurse holding her daughter. Thinking Zephany was safe in the hands of a hospital staff, she drifted off. When she awoke, the real nightmare began. “Where is your baby?” she was asked by a nurse.
Zephany’s aunt, Shantal Berry, remembered the devastating day. “Oh my God, it was like a funeral. Sad. We felt empty, lost. We felt why, why?”
Upon hearing the news of his daughter’s kidnapping, Morné said he went ballistic. “I even knocked over a medicine cabinet and all the bottles broke on the floor.”
The police searched the entire hospital but found nothing. A zip-up baby garment, an unabandoned handbag, and an unclaimed pillow found outside the maternity ward were the only clues. It was as if the mysterious baby snatcher had never existed.
It wasn’t until 17 years later and by pure chance that Zephany would be reunited with her family.
Four years after the disappearance of their daughter Zephany, Celeste and Morné had another baby. Cassidy was their second daughter and two more children Joshua and Micah soon followed. Morné shared a deep affection for his daughter Cassidy and often called her his little Pain Away, because her birth had been such a joy that their pain from losing Zephany was almost forgotten.
“We do this every year to show that we haven’t forgotten about her,” said Morné.
Cassidy and her two younger brothers took part in the ritual each year. They all knew who Zephany is but have never met her. They’d gather around and sing happy birthday to their lost order sister.
Unknown to the Nurses, Zephany had been living just a few miles away with a different family and under a different name.
When Cassidy Nurse started attending eighth grade at a Cape Town secondary school, her fellow classmates noticed a striking resemblance between her and another girl in class. Zephany had begun studying at the Cape Town school for four years before her biological sister had enrolled. A few school friends introduced the two girls and Cassidy realized, “My God, she looks just like me.” They became instant friends.
One day, Morné Nurse saw his daughter sharing burgers with Zephany at a McDonalds and was taken aback by the extreme similarities. The Nurses immediately invited Zephany over to their house for afternoon tea under the guise of getting to know their daughter’s friend better. When they met Zephany, they instantly knew this was their daughter.
The South African Police Service was contacted and a covert DNA test done. The Nurses waited anxiously and finally the test results came back. Zephany was their daughter who’d been stolen seventeen years ago.
According to Shantal Berry, Zephany and her mother met for the first time on Thursday.
“She was very excited. She cried, she told me. She said she’s got a very pretty, very beautiful daughter,” said Berry.
After losing Zephany, Celeste had become an overprotective mother to her other children. When the children asked why they couldn’t ride their bikes around the block, Celeste would tell them they could easily be kidnapped.
“Over the years there was negative talk from people outside about her being killed, but not in the family,” a relative of the missing girl told local reporters at the arraignment hearing. “We knew she was alive. We had birthday parties for her every year. She’s back now, and we’re going to have a big party for her next birthday.”
On Tuesday, March 3rd 2015, Zephany’s representative from the Centre for Child Law read out a statement on Zephany’s behalf. “I want to say thank you to all the people who supported me through this, for continuously praying and never giving up on looking for me. Under the circumstances, I am doing fine.”