BEIRUT — A woman accompanied by activists and brandishing what she said was a toy pistol broke into a Beirut bank branch on Wednesday, taking $13,000 from her trapped savings.
Sali Hafez told the local Al-Jadeed TV that she needed the money to fund her sister's cancer treatment. She said she had repeatedly visited the bank to ask for her money and was told she could only receive $200 a month in Lebanese pounds. Hafez said the toy pistol belonged to her nephew.
"I had begged the branch manager before for my money, and I told him my sister was dying, didn't have much time left," she said in the interview. "I reached a point where I had nothing else to lose."
Lebanon's cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country's economy continues to spiral.
Hafez and activists from a group called Depositors' Outcry entered the BLOM Bank branch and stormed 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 personal belongings and had considered selling her kidney to fund her 23 year-old sister's cancer treatment.
Nadine Nakhal, a bank customer, said the intruders "doused gasoline everywhere inside, and took out a lighter and threatened to light it." She said the woman with the pistol threatened to shoot the manager if she did not receive her money.
Hafez said in a live-streamed video she posted on her Facebook account that she did not intend to do harm. "I did not break into the bank to kill anyone or set the place on fire," she said. "I am here to get my rights."
Hafez was celebrated as a hero across social media in Lebanon, as many in the small crisis-hit country struggle to make ends meet and retrieve their savings. She encouraged others to take similar action to reclaim 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 standing outside arrested several of the activists, including a man carrying what looked like a handgun. It was not immediately clear if this was also a toy gun.
Meanwhile, Alaa Khorchid who heads the Depositors' Outcry protest group said that a man communicating and coordinating with the group broke into a bank in the mountainous town of Aley to retrieve his trapped savings. Local media reported that the man entered the BankMed branch alone with a shotgun without any shells loaded, but was unable to retrieve his savings before he was apprehended.
Both incidents occurred weeks after a food delivery driver broke into another bank branch in Beirut and held 10 people hostage for seven hours, demanding tens of thousands of dollars in his trapped savings. Most hailed him as a hero.
"There is no government, no economic recovery plan, and little reserves left," Khorchid told the AP, adding that people have no choice but to "take matters into their own hands".
"These people worked for decades, but not for the rulers to build palaces while they can't afford a bottle of medicine."
On Wednesday night, activists closed a major road in Beirut outside a police barracks holding two activists who stormed the bank earlier in the day with Hafez. The protesters demanded the immediate release of the two men.
Lebanon has scrambled for over two years to implement key reforms in its decimated 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 loan and aid to make the country viable again. Its government has struggled to function in a caretaker capacity since May, and its recently elected Parliament remains deeply divided.
In the meantime, millions are struggling to cope with rampant power outages and soaring inflation.
"We need to put a stop 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 need to find a solution."