PLESHIN, YUGOSLAVIA -- Yugoslavia's ethnic Albanians have been gathering in vast crowds in southern Serbia in emotional ceremonies intended to end age-old blood feuds between clans and bring their community of 2 million into the mainstream of European society.
The ceremonies, begun at the initiative of a group of students in February, have publicly reconciled dozens of Albanian clans in the open air sessions, some involving hundreds of thousands of people.
While they reconcile clans, however, the meetings are causing new divisions between the ethnic Albanians and Serbian authorities, who rule the predominantly Albanian Kosovo province. Many Serbs allege that they are designed to whip Albanian passions into a frenzy of nationalist unity with which to confront Serbia.
In one of the latest of the wave of ceremonies, a crowd of 5,000 Albanians gathered recently on a grassy hillside above the village of Pleshin. From time to time, individuals stepped out from the crowd, embraced and shook hands, while the audience burst into cheers. Usually boisterous village boys were entranced, their eyes locked onto a rostrum bedecked with crimson Turkish rugs, red roses and the Albanian emblem, a black, two-headed eagle.
Old men wearing the traditional white Albanian cap leaned forward on their sticks, tears glistening on some of the weather-beaten faces, as another blood feud was brought to an end.
The blood feud tradition here dates back more than 500 years, at least to the beginning of the centuries-long Turkish occupation. Under it, male Albanians are required to avenge a murder in the family by taking the life of the murderer or one of his male relatives.
In Albania, blood feuds have been almost eliminated by the relentless discipline imposed on that country by its Stalinist rulers. But here in Kosovo, they have lingered on, claiming perhaps a dozen lives a year and ensuring the virtual imprisonment of hundreds of adult men.
"Some men have lived at home for years, not daring to venture out for fear of being killed in revenge for a crime they may not even have committed," said Kosovo psychologist Milenko Karan.
The students moved to end the feuds because, in the words of one of them, "we are a part of Europe, and if we are to be accepted by the rest of Europe we must shake off these primitive customs."
But Albanian society is intensely patriarchal, and respect comes with age, so the students invited one of Kosovo's most respected authorities on Albanian customs and folklore, Anton Cetta, to mediate between warring families.
Cetta, 70, a soft-spoken, silver-haired professor, quickly became the central actor in the drama of reconciliation. After his first successful efforts, he was quickly sought out by dozens of families wanting to end vendettas that had lasted, in some cases, for generations.
Now he is a folk hero. Led to the Pleshin ceremony up a narrow, rocky path astride a white horse, he sat in the place of honor under a portrait of a great Albanian hero of the past, Prince Skenderbeg.
"So far, we have ended 900 vendettas," the professor told the hushed crowd. "There are only 100 remaining."
The crowd, some of whom came from as far away as Cleveland and Sweden, stood and cheered. As family representatives stepped forward to embrace someone from the enemy family, they announced forgiveness for the deaths involved. One man had lost a brother and a son, another a cousin and step-brother in revenge killings.
As the years of pent-up emotions were released, tears flowed freely. It was a kind of collective catharsis, intensified by music strummed on a traditional six-stringed lyre.
But the organizers were in a hurry to end the ceremony. "All public meetings need police permission," explained one of them. "The police don't like these meetings and often break them up."
Although nearly 90 percent of Kosovo's inhabitants are Albanian, the province itself is a part of Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's six republics.
For the past two years, the Communist leadership of Serbia, under its hard-line president, Slobodan Milosevic, has been tightening its control over the province amid mounting protests from Albanian inhabitants. At least 30 ethnic Albanians have died in anti-Serbian demonstrations this year.
Last week, Serbia dissolved Kosovo's government and provincial assembly after more than 100 Albanian assembly members declared the province's independence from Serbia.
Many Serbs are suspicious that the reconciliation gatherings are disguised nationalist rallies organized by Albanian "separatists" with a secret three-step plan. Step one allegedly is to make Kosovo a separate Yugoslav republic; step two, to secede from Yugoslavia; and step three, to merge with adjoining Albania into a "Greater Albania."
At the gathering here, the fires of nationalism were slowly but surely fanned into life. As the meeting moved toward its end, invited guests each stepped up and addressed a few words to the crowd. A Catholic priest was followed by a Moslem mullah, then the mullah's wife. She praised the participants and, in a rising voice, urged the people to stand together and bury their differences. Her parting words -- "Kosovo republic!" -- were all but drowned in a roar of approval from the crowd.
Few of Yugoslavia's Albanians, however, call openly for secession. "What we want is equality within Yugoslavia," Adem Demaci said. Demaci was Yugoslavia's longest-serving political prisoner until his release in April after nearly 28 years in prison for separatist activities.
But what about "Greater Albania"?
"Let us solve our own problems first," said one villager here. "Only then will we think about such issues for the future."