There are a few things we know about return migration after violent conflict, and quite a bit we have yet to learn. Many people who are forcibly displaced by violence have no desire to go back home, particularly if they were part of a minority group. Indeed, Adelman and Barkman (2011) have noted that while minority return is an expectation it is rarely a reality. Instead when we see large populations returns after violent conflict it is usually the majority population returning or in those very few circumstances where both the government and returnees are happy with the outcome of the conflict. Even then, they do not necessarily return to their communities of origin, but often to urban areas.
Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were forcibly displaced by the Kosovo War in 1998-1999. Efforts to promote their return to Kosovo have not met with much success. My recent article in International Migration investigates minority Serb returns to Kosovo, examining the question of where they return. The analysis identifies a pattern of preference for return to traditionally Serb rural areas in Kosovo. This is somewhat unusual. Based on what has happened in other countries, we would expect returnees to come back to cities, particularly since large numbers of Serbs were displaced from urban areas. But this is not what is happening.
When we exclude the four northern Serb municipalities which do not function as part of the state of Kosovo, the municipalities with the highest numbers of Serb returnees are rural. Surprisingly, of the three municipalities with the highest number of returnees (Klinë/Klina, Novobërdë/Novo Brde, and Istog/Istok) only Novobërdë/Novo Brde is a Serb-majority municipality created under the Ahtisaari Plan. This is a little puzzling. One might expect that Serbs would return to areas where they had political control and protection. Also strange is the fact that people are returning to areas with some of the highest rates of retaliatory violence during the war. So what could be happening, why might people be returning to these rural municipalities?
Some of the recent work on civil wars suggests that the violence is often localized, enacted within a larger narrative of conflict, but often with personal and local motivations. Return migration might have somewhat similar characteristics in which the local community is more important than the wider political environment. In rural ethnic enclaves Serbs can enjoy the society of their co-ethnics in relative security and isolated from the national political context. In some of the interviews I conducted for this project people talked about the importance of Serbian schools, churches, and ‘girls for the boys to marry’.
While this may not seem desirable in terms of longer term reconciliation between ethnic groups, in the short term it enables people to feel secure in their daily environment. Like in Bosnia, ethnic enclaves in Kosovo isolate people from the ethnic other, providing a safe option for return after ethnic conflict. The decision to return to an enclave community meets the public policy goal of return, but is far from a restoration of communities to what they were before the conflict.