Woman stages violence to grab Beirut bank’s trapped savings

A woman exits a bank through a window smashed by assailants in Beirut, Lebanon. An armed woman and a dozen militants broke into the bank and took more than $13,000 from what the woman said was her trapped savings. Lebanese banks that have been cash-strapped since 2019 have imposed strict limits on foreign currency withdrawals, tying up the savings of millions. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — A woman accompanied by activists and brandishing what she said was a toy gun broke into a Beirut bank branch, taking $13,000 of her 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 in the small country in crisis 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.

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 must find a solution. »