A shadowy entity known as the Lord's Resistance Army has kidnapped some 20,000 children across northern Uganda and has forced them to kill even members of their own families. Most girls become sex slaves, and many people have been raided and mutilated in random attacks.

The LRA is said to have been formed in 1987 by a self-styled prophet named Joseph Kony, who at the time reportedly claimed his group would overthrow the Ugandan government and rule the country according to the Biblical Ten Commandments. The Sudanese government has been accused of supplying arms and other assistance to the LRA.

It is said that the group is a cult whose members are directed by supernatural powers.

Julius Tiboa is program coordinator for Gulu Support the Children Organization, which during its eight years of operation has rehabilitated more than 7,000 children held by the LRA.

Mr. Tiboa says the little information about LRA rituals and procedures that there is can be gleaned from the stories the captured children tell him and his staff.

"When children are abducted, on the first time, many of the children are treated with some suspicion," he said. "But, with time, they [LRA] will then organize rituals. Some of these rituals involve praying. They do a lot of prayers. The prayer is neither Catholic nor Protestant but it is Christian-like. They do a lot of prayers, and then they do a lot of singing, and then they do a lot of sprinkling with water. Also, they do smearing of the children with some oil - we call it shea nut oil."

The group has earned universal condemnation. On a recent tour of the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Tony Hall, was visibly moved.

"I've been to about 115 countries in the world and seen civil war and famine and lots of people suffering," he said. "But I have never seen thousands of children at a very young age from four all the way up to 17 actually be urged by their parents to leave their houses, to come in at night to sleep in someplace that is safe for them so they won't get abducted by this very hideous group."

Mr. Hall called on the Ugandan government and the LRA to immediately work out a peaceful solution to the crisis.

What makes reaching a solution to the crisis so difficult is partly because very little is actually known about the LRA.

In reality, it is virtually impossible to verify exactly how many rebels there are, where they are based, who supports them, how cohesive they are, or even why they carry out their brutality.

Another difficulty is knowing exactly how committed the Ugandan government actually is to stopping the conflict.

Rwot David Onen Acana II, the paramount chief of the Acholi ethnic group that lives in the affected areas, says the army, or UPDF, has done a commendable job under the circumstances.

"Why this has gone [on] for so long [is because] I think the LRA is quite elusive. They have never been directly confrontational with the [Ugandan army] forces. They always keep on evading them and rather going for the soft targets. The government has tried so much. The UPDF has worked tirelessly through all these 18 years," said the Acholi chief.

But a lecturer in the University of Nairobi's political science department, Adams Oloo, says, LRA tactics aside, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni himself does not consider northern Uganda to be a political priority, a major factor in the conflict's continuation.

"Since the north was proving to be quite difficult to control, he did decide that he could lead the country without necessarily controlling the north," explained Mr. Oloo. "To that extent, he has moved as if the north doesn't really matter, whether he brings it under control or not, that Uganda continues to move on, that the international community seems to be impressed with the peace of development."

Mr. Oloo says much of this lack of commitment can be traced back to the country's recent history.

From the mid 1960s to 1980s, Uganda was ruled by several dictators, the most notorious being Milton Obote and Idi Amin, who were both from the north.

Obote and Amin's brutality were legendary. Anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 southerners were massacred under Obote's reign, while Amin is estimated to have killed up to 400,000 people.

Obote also abolished the office of the Kabaka, the traditional king of the Buganda people in the south. The Kabaka died in exile, a very sore point with southerners.

When Mr. Museveni, a southerner, took power in 1986, northern soldiers in the former army fled back up to the north, afraid of being killed in revenge for past violence. In their desperation, they turned to a rebel group called the Holy Spirit Movement for protection.

The Holy Spirit Movement achieved some success battling Mr. Museveni's forces but was militarily defeated in 1987 when it moved to the south some 50 kilometers away from the capital, Kampala.

Members of the Holy Spirit Movement went on to form more rebel groups, which fell apart or were defeated by the Ugandan army. But one group, the Lord's Resistance Army, remains to this day.

The University of Nairobi's Mr. Oloo says Mr. Museveni and other southerners still feel bitter about the past and are resentful of the Acholi ethnic group, who lives in the north.

"Ethnicity is a very powerful tool. It's like, we suffered under your regimes. You were favored when your kinsmen were in power. Now we are in power. Either join us or you shall continue to suffer - we can progress without you," he described.

But the Ugandan government may soon be forced to change all that. Donors and human rights groups alike are increasingly vocal about the suffering of the north. The case is now before the International Criminal Court.