Mindanao, Philippines—The Badjao people have inhabited this island since at least the 16th century. Traveling in their hand-built boats, they scattered as far as Malaysia and northern Borneo. They remain the largest Muslim group in the largely Catholic nation of the Philippines. For 10 years, I have covered brutal conflicts on this beautiful island, and since I began photographing here, I have hoped that one day Minadao will once again live up to its name, the Promised Land.

The casualties among the island’s Moro rebels, who have been fighting for independence for more than four decades, as well as government troops and civilians, have been mounting at an alarming pace. Beginning in 2000, breakaway groups, which allied themselves with such notorious terror organizations as the Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaida, launched a series of kidnap-for-ransom attacks, setting off a decade of bloody battles with government forces.

Fighting between the government and...

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