The two brothers have come a long way since they first heard that their sisters had been murdered on Dec. 2, 1980.

Bill Ford is a black-haired New York lawyer with six children. Michael Donovan is a slight, fair-haired Connecticut accountant with a year-old son.

They have left their jobs and families repeatedly to come to Washington to wrangle with the State Department, to testify before Congress, to answer official slanders. They will not let their sisters die.

They have forced the State Department to reckon with them, rallied congressional support and finally made the solution of their sisters' deaths a matter of official policy. One of the conditions for certifying El Salvador for further U.S. military aid is a show of "progress" in solving the killings of Jean Donovan, Sister Ita Ford, Sister Dorothy Kazel, Sister Maura Clarke and two other Americans, labor experts Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman--about whom the labor movement makes surprisingly little outcry.

The brothers' success has made little difference. They see no progress in El Salvador, but certification was made anyway. As for justice, it seems as remote as ever. The trial date for the five soldiers charged in February with the deaths has not been set.

Ford and Donovan, along with families of the other victims, emerged from their latest meeting with the State Department Bureau of Inter-American Affairs discouraged and outraged by a new turn of events. They were introduced to a nameless lawyer from El Salvador who, they found out, could be retained by them as an "accusador particular" for a minimum of $30,000. The lawyer explained that they also would have to hire an investigator to assist him at approximately the same price.

It was rather dramatic, according to the brothers. Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Thomas O. Enders would not bring the Salvadoran into the room until he had extracted a pledge of secrecy from the family members about the lawyer's presence at the meeting.

The reason given was ironic, in view of the recent certification of El Salvador's "progress" in human rights: the man's life would be in danger when he returned to El Salvador.

The families agreed to keep silence.

Strange to say, it was super-diplomat Enders who let the cat out of the bag. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in open session Tuesday morning that the lawyer, who was retained by the U.S. Embassy to look into the murders, had met with the families. Enders apparently thought it was proof of "progress."

His disclosure led to maximum confusion at the afternoon committee session, where Ford and Donovan once again pleaded with the senators to lean on the Salvadoran government and the State Department.

Donovan said he had learned from the State Department that "it now has reason to suspect the direct involvement of senior officers . . . and officials of the Salvadoran government" in the murders. When the senators asked him his source in the State Department, he replied that it was the lawyer.

"I prepared my testimony before I heard Secretary Enders speak freely about him, so I used the words 'State Department' to protect him," Donovan said.

Enders denied that the lawyer had said any such thing.

The State Department insists that it is as fervent as the families in solving the case.

"I am sorry to say," Ford told the senators, "that our government is looking for a trial of the five and to forget the whole thing. The families are determined not to let this happen."

Where families and Foggy Bottom clash is over the question of the involvement of higher-ups. Donovan is convinced there is no other explanation for the delays and shoddiness of the investigation. Ford thinks that no serious investigation has been or will be made.

The State Department protests that, despite the resignation of three judges assigned to the case, the matter is on course. It is the vagaries of the Salvadoran legal system, not official foot-dragging that impedes justice, the department maintains.

It is a system that seems designed to devour justice rather than produce it. Former president Napoleon Duarte explained once to baffled senators that it was "intended to catch chicken thieves, not murderers."

A State Department spokesman says he thinks the families are of two minds, "wanting swift justice while calling for a more thorough investigation."

L. Craig Johnstone, the State Department's area director for Central America, says he is confident that the trial will occur. If it does, it will be the first for any members of the Salvadoran security forces, who are suspected of thousands of killings.

On one point, both sides agree. Says Johnstone: "It would create a legal system." Says Ford: "It would help those poor people down there."

About the only thing that is clear at this point is that Michael Donovan and Bill Ford are champion brothers.