BEIRUT — A woman accompanied by activists and brandishing what she said was a toy gun burst into a Beirut bank branch on Wednesday, taking $13,000 of her booby-trapped savings.
Sali Hafez told local Al-Jadeed TV that she needed money to fund her sister’s cancer treatment. She said she repeatedly went to the bank to ask for her money and was told she could only receive $200 per month in Lebanese pounds. Hafez said the toy gun belonged to his nephew.
“I had already begged the branch manager for my money, and I told him that my sister was dying, that she didn’t have much time left,” she said during the interview. “I reached a point where I had nothing left to lose.”
Cash-strapped Lebanese banks have imposed strict limits on foreign currency withdrawals since 2019, tying up the savings of millions. About three-quarters of the population have fallen into poverty as the economy of the small Mediterranean country continues to soar.
Hafez and activists from a group called Depositors’ Outcry entered the BLOM Bank branch and broke into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafez said she had a total of $20,000 in savings trapped in that bank. She said she had already sold many of her belongings and considered selling her kidney to fund her 23-year-old sister’s cancer treatment.
Nadine Nakhal, a bank customer, said the intruders “sprayed gasoline all over the interior, took out a lighter and threatened to light it.” She said the woman with the gun threatened to shoot the manager if she didn’t get her money.
Hafez said in a live-streamed video she posted on her Facebook account that she meant no harm. “I didn’t break into the bank to kill anyone or set the place on fire,” she said. “I am here to assert my rights.
Hafez has been celebrated as a hero on social media in Lebanon as many residents of the small, crisis-stricken country struggle to make ends meet and recover their life savings. She encouraged others to take similar steps to recover their savings.
Some of the activists entered the bank with Hafez, while others staged a protest at the entrance. Hafez eventually left with cash in a plastic bag, witnesses said.
Security forces outside arrested several of the activists, including a man carrying what appeared to be a handgun. It was not immediately clear if this was also a toy gun.
Meanwhile, Alaa Khorchid, who leads the protest group Depositors’ Outcry, said a man communicating and coordinating with the group broke into a bank in the mountain town of Aley to retrieve his trapped savings. Local media reported that the man walked into the BankMed branch alone with a shotgun without any loaded shells, but was unable to recover his savings before being apprehended.
Both incidents happened weeks after a food delivery driver burst into another bank branch in Beirut and held 10 people hostage for seven hours, demanding tens of thousands of dollars from his trapped savings. Most hailed him as a hero.
“There is no government, no economic recovery plan and there are few reserves left,” Khorchid told the AP, adding that people have no choice but to “take matters into their own hands.” hand”.
“These people have worked for decades, but not for rulers to build palaces when they can’t afford a bottle of medicine.”
On Wednesday evening, activists closed off a main road in Beirut in front of a police barracks holding two activists who stormed the bank earlier in the day with Hafez. The demonstrators demanded the immediate release of the two men.
Lebanon has scrambled for more than two years to implement key reforms in its decimated banking sector and economy. So far, he has failed to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a stimulus package that would release billions of dollars in international loans and aid to make the country viable again. His government has struggled to function in an interim capacity since May, and his recently elected parliament remains deeply divided.
Meanwhile, millions of people are struggling to cope with widespread blackouts and soaring inflation.
“We have to put an end to everything that is happening to us in this country,” Nakhal said. “Everyone’s money is stuck in the banks, and in this case, it’s someone who is sick. We have to find a solution.”