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On March 31, 1959, after an arduous trek across the mountains, the Dalai Lama and his entourage entered India. This sparked off an exodus of refugees from Tibet to India—leaving behind only small pockets of resistance in southern Tibet.

Undeterred, the CIA parachuted four groups of Camp Hale trainees inside Tibet between 1959 and 1960 to contact the remaining resistance groups. But the missions resulted in the massacre of all but a few of the team members.

The CIA cooked up a fresh operation in Mustang, a remote corner of Nepal that juts into Tibet. Nearly two thousand Tibetans gathered here to continue their fight for freedom. A year later, the CIA made its first arms drop in Mustang. Organised on the lines of a modern army, the guerrillas were led by Bapa Yeshe, a former monk.

"As soon as we received the aid, the Americans started scolding us like children. They said that we had to go into Tibet immediately. Sometimes I wished they hadn’t sent us the arms at all," says Yeshe.

The Mustang guerrillas conducted cross-border raids into Tibet. The CIA made two more arms drops to the Mustang force, the last in May 1965. Then, in early 1969, the agency abruptly cut off all support. The CIA explained that one of the main conditions the Chinese had set for establishing diplomatic relations with the US was to stop all connections and all assistance to the Tibetans. Says Roger McCarthy, an ex-CIA man, "It still smarts that we pulled out in the manner we did."

Thinley Paljor, a surviving resistance fighter, was among the thousands shattered by this volte-face. "We felt deceived, we felt our usefulness to the CIA is finished. They were only thinking short-term for their own personal gain, not for the long-term interests of the Tibetan people."

In 1974, armtwisted by the Chinese, the Nepalese government sent troops to Mustang to demand the surrender of the guerrillas. Fearing a bloody confrontation, the Dalai Lama sent the resistance fighters a taped message, asking them to surrender. They did so, reluctantly. Some committed suicide soon afterwards.

Today, the survivors of the Mustang resistance force live in two refugee settlements in Nepal, where they eke out a living spinning wool and weaving carpets.

"The film is for the younger Tibetans, who are unaware of the resistance, as well as for Americans, who don’t know how their own government used and betrayed the resistance," says Tenzing. "Though it was a story begging to be told, funding it was almost impossible," adds Ritu.

The couple have been making films since 1983, on subjects from reincarnation to the expat Sikh community in California and Tenzing’s first trip to Tibet. A full-length Tibetan feature film is in the pipeline, but The Shadow Circus is likely to be remembered for its startling revelations.

The most poignant summary comes from Tenzing’s father: "We were able to utilise [the American] help for our own ends. We couldn’t just go and fight the Chinese with empty hands. I don’t see our armed struggle as something that was helpful only at a certain point in our history, something that is finished. We should look at it as one chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, one that still has some meaning."

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