Desperate Lebanese are resorting to armed heists to retrieve money being withheld by banks, as the country’s economy continues to crash.
A Lebanese woman forced staff at BLOM Bank in Beirut to hand over thousands of dollars of her own money by waving what appeared to be a handgun in the branch, in a desperate attempt to fund what she said was hospital treatment for her cancer-stricken sister.
Shortly afterwards, an armed man entered a branch of BankMed in Lebanon’s mountain city of Aley and attempted to retrieve his trapped savings. The man obtained some of the money before handing himself over to authorities.
Wednesday’s incidents follow a similar event in August when a man held people hostage in another Beirut bank to forcibly obtain money that the bank had withheld.
They are evidence that Lebanese depositors, whose savings have been devalued and trapped in banks for almost three years, have begun to take matters into their own hands.
In the BLOM Bank incident, a woman identified by her mother as Sali Hafiz, entered the branch along with activists, and stormed the manager’s office, witnesses said.
Hafiz streamed a live video of her raid, in which she could be heard yelling at employees to release a sum of money while entrances to the bank were sealed.
“I am Sali Hafiz, I came today … to take the deposits of my sister who is dying in the hospital,” she said in the video.
“I did not come to kill anyone or to start a fire … I came to claim my rights.”
The woman instantly turned into a folk hero on social media in Lebanon, where many are desperate to access their savings and furious at a banking sector perceived as a corrupt cartel.
A second woman who appeared in the video claimed they had secured more than $13,000, while a man standing beside her carried what appeared to be stacks of banknotes wrapped in plastic.
Gasoline poured in bank
Hafiz and suspected accomplices escaped through a smashed window at the back of the branch before security forces arrived.
“They doused gasoline everywhere inside, and took out a lighter and threatened to light it,” said Nadine Nakhal, a customer at the bank. She said the armed woman threatened to shoot the manager if she did not receive her money.
The incident lasted under an hour.
In the August incident, a local man received widespread sympathy after he stormed a Beirut bank with a rifle and held employees and customers hostage for hours to demand some of his $200,000 in frozen savings to pay hospital bills for his sick father.
He was detained but swiftly released.
In January, a bank customer held dozens of people hostage in eastern Lebanon after he was told he could not withdraw his foreign currency savings, a source at the lender said.
Local media reported that the customer was eventually given some of his savings and surrendered to security forces.
Lebanon has been battered by its worst economic crisis since 2019. The local currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value on the black market, while poverty and unemployment have soared.