BEIRUT (AP) — A woman was with staff and revealed what she said was a toy pistol that broke into a Beirut bank branch Wednesday, taking $13,000 from her frozen savings.
Sali Hafez told local Al-Jadeed TV that her sister needed the money for cancer treatment. He said he went to the bank repeatedly to ask for his money and was told he could get $200 a month in Lebanese pounds. Hafez said the toy pistol belonged to his nephew.
“I requested my money from the branch manager earlier, and I told him that my sister is dying, she doesn’t have much time left,” he said in the interview. “I reached a point where I had nothing left to lose.”
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on foreign currency withdrawals since 2019, wiping out millions of people’s savings. Nearly three-quarters of the population have been plunged into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean nation’s economy continues to spiral.
Hafez and activists of a group called Depositors Outcry entered the branch of BLOM Bank and attacked 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 that he has a total deposit of 20,000 dollars in that bank. He said he had already sold many of his personal belongings and considered selling his kidney to fund his 23-year-old sister’s cancer treatment.
Nadine Nakhal, a bank customer, said the intruders “poured petrol everywhere inside and took out a lighter and threatened to set it on fire.” He said the woman with a pistol threatened to shoot the manager if he did not get the money.
Hafez said in a live-streamed video posted on his Facebook account that he had no intention of causing harm. “I did not enter the bank to kill anyone or set the place on fire,” he said. “I’m here to get my rights.”
Hafez was celebrated as a hero across Lebanese social media, as many people in the small crisis-torn country struggle to replenish and restore their savings. He encouraged others to take similar steps to recover their savings.
Some activists entered the bank with Hafez, while others protested at the entrance. Witnesses said Hafez eventually left with the cash in a plastic bag.
Security forces standing outside arrested several workers, including a man with what appeared to be a handgun. It was not immediately clear if it was also a toy gun.
Meanwhile, Alaa Khorchid, head of the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, said a man who liaised and coordinated with the group entered a bank in the city of Ale to retrieve his frozen savings. Local media reported that the man entered the BancMed branch alone with a shotgun and no shells loaded, but was unable to retrieve his savings before being caught.
Both incidents came weeks after a food delivery driver entered another bank branch in Beirut and held 10 people hostage for seven hours, demanding tens of thousands of dollars in his trapped savings. Many called him a hero.
“There is no government, no economic recovery plan, and little reserve left,” Khorchid told the AP, adding that people have no choice but to “take matters into their own hands.”
“These people have worked for decades, but not to build palaces for rulers when they can’t afford a bottle of medicine.”
On Wednesday night, activists blocked a main street in Beirut outside a police barracks holding two activists who attacked the bank with Hafez the day before. The protesters demanded the immediate release of the two men.
Lebanon has worked for more than two years to implement key reforms to its battered banking sector and economy. It has so far failed to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a recovery program that would unlock billions of dollars in international debt and help the country function again. Its government has struggled to function in caretaker capacity since May, and its recently elected parliament remains deeply divided.
Meanwhile, millions of people are struggling to cope with widespread power outages and rising inflation.
“We have to stop everything that is happening to us in this country,” Nakhal said. “Everybody’s money is stuck in the bank, and in this case, somebody is sick. We have to find a solution.”