AS NIGHT falls in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, the children start to appear. First in twos or threes, then in huge gangs in their thousands. They trudge into town, afraid to sleep in their villages, where the kidnappers strike.
By midnight the streets of Gulu are crammed with tiny bodies. The pavements are impossible to walk on because they are so full of sleeping children. Every public place, including the hospital, schools and churches, are crammed to capacity.
The children are fleeing a rebel cult called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Over the past 17 years the group has kidnapped an estimated 20,000 children and forcibly recruited them to its ranks.
The LRA forces the children to carry out appalling atrocities. Recently it has started mutilating some captives. Others are routinely beaten or killed for trying to escape or for being unable to carry the heavy loads put on their backs.
On Thursday, the Ugandan government said at least 45 children abducted by the LRA drowned while crossing a river about 125 miles north-east of the capital Kampala.
Lieutenant General Jeje Odongo said: "The rebels used the children to test whether the swollen river was passable, but the children were swept away and drowned."
The LRA is led by Joseph Kony, a school drop-out turned rebel, whose goal is to overthrow Uganda’s government and rule the country by the biblical Ten Commandments.
"Many who come out of the bush, when they are free to talk, they tell you he is not actually sane," said Father Carlos, a church leader in Gulu, and one of the few people to have had independent access to the rebels.
Kony is reputed to have 60 wives and to sometimes wear women’s dresses. He has told child captives that angels speak to him and give him orders.
Fourteen-year-old Denis was kidnapped by the rebels in February 2000. He fled last October and is now in a camp run by local social workers where those who escape gather for rehabilitation.
While in captivity he was brutally beaten and abused. But his worst memory is of the day he was forced to kill.
On that day Kony had ordered that no one should eat at 4pm. One child captive disobeyed. Seven children were selected, Denis among them, and ordered to execute him.
"I was selected with other abducted children to kill this child by hitting him on the head with a big stick until he died. And I did it. I was afraid if I refused they would kill me," Denis said.
The boy he was forced to kill had been his friend. Denis has recurrent nightmares now that he is screaming and no one can hear him.
The rebels make regular raids on nearby villages and local boarding schools to kidnap children, who are rounded up and tied to each other by ropes around their waists for days, even weeks. Later they are trained as fighters in the use of guns.
The LRA has bases in southern Sudan and is thought to receive some funding from Sudan’s Muslim government, which accuses Uganda of supporting the SPLA rebel army which is fighting in the south of of Sudan.
Testimonies from children who have escaped from the LRA’s clutches say that captured girls are given to rebel commanders for rape when they are 12.
Other children are made to kill their own families or carry out other atrocities to harden them up and isolate them from their original communities.
Uganda’s powerful military has been trying to crush the LRA for almost two decades without success. In the past few weeks the rebels have made new incursions into the east of the country.
But President Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s most respected leaders, refuses to consider international help.