By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online
The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which has earned a terrifying reputation for its brutality against the people of northern Uganda, has abducted an estimated 20,000 children over the years.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch some 5,000 of them have been abducted since June 2002. In a report in March, it said the number was likely to be because of the return of the rebels to Uganda after the government intensified a military offensive against their bases in neighbouring Sudan.
The Lords Resistance Army is notorious for abducting children
Children are most vulnerable to abduction at night, when rebels raid villages, looting them for food and supplies.
Older female captives are forced to become the "wives" of senior commanders and are subjected to rape, unwanted pregnancies and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and Aids. The younger girls are forced into gruelling domestic work.
New males captives are forced to participate in atrocities, such as killing, maiming and intimidating the local population by burning down their homes.
The rebels have generally been most active in northern Uganda, where families live in constant fear.
Tens of thousands of children, frightened that rebels may strike their homes at night, walk to urban centres for protection during the hours of dark.
They are known as the "night dwellers", youngsters who huddle in centres run by non-governmental organisations or on the streets and shop verandas and head back to their villages at dawn.
Some, say Lars Skaansar, United Nations humanitarian worker in the northern town of Gulu, walk up to eight kilometres just to find somewhere safe to sleep.
"About 14,000 sleep in five centres, including a church and a bus station, every night in Gulu," he told BBC News Online.
He estimated that another 10,000 or so sleep with relatives or on the streets and verandas.
"It's a very big problem, we need a lot of resources to look after them."
Many children who escape the LRA or are "set free" by government forces are taken to rehabilitation centres supported by non-governmental organisations.
The Gulu Support the Children Organisation (GUSCO) says they have dealt with about 4,000 former child captives since 1997.
Stella Ojera, who helps run the centre, says the number of children who have managed to escape in the past year is higher than in previous years, but that is because the overall abduction rate has increased.
At the moment, nine children a day turn up at the centre, where they have just over 200 children at any one time.
"Many are suffering from severe trauma and need a lot of counselling," Ms Ojera told BBC News Online.
"They have been forced to do terrible things. Many are withdrawn, others are very aggressive and others have an overwhelming need for revenge, either against their own people or the rebels."
Most are in a weak physical state, either malnourished or exhausted and sore after walking for long distances.
Some, says Ms Ojera, are in need of critical medical attention after being caught in crossfire between rebels and government forces.
She says that from the centre's experience, most of the children have spent a short period of time with the rebels. But, she says, there are those who have been with the rebels a long time and have become indoctrinated by the aims of the group's leaders.
The LRA is led by a cruel self-declared prophet, Joseph Kony, who says his aim is to set up a government that rules according to the Biblical Ten Commandments.
He is thought to have had at least 60 "wives". One, who managed to escape last year, had been in captivity for eight years.
According to GUSCO's Ms Ojera, girls who have been abducted find it harder to escape because they are kept in close proximity to their "husbands", the commanders.
"In our experience of the girls who do turn up to our centre," she says, "the women tend to have had an average of three children while they are in captivity. They have been there a long time and, in some cases, their children become fighters. The LRA consider the age of seven a fighting age."
Ms Ojera says she has little hope that peace will come to the country in the near future.
"The situation just seems to be getting worse. I thought it had peaked in 1997, but now there are more and more children being abducted. And just think how many are being killed every day. If we have nine children turning up on a daily basis, how many others have been killed while trying to escape?"