- BBC News World
The scene is one of panic. Dressed in black, holding a gun in her hand, a woman accompanied by her sister points to the employees of a bank in Lebanon, demanding that they hand over US$20,000.
The heist is a success. Sali Hafiz flees with at least $13,000 and no one is hurt.
But the assault – which took place on September 14 at the Blom bank branch in Beirut – was not just any assault: the weapon Hazif was carrying was a toy and the money she was asking for was the one she herself had in her account.
His goal was to recover the family savings to pay for his 28-year-old sister’s cancer treatment.
Her actions, broadcast live on social media, immediately turned her into a folk heroineand in a symbol of the suffering and despair that many Lebanese live in the midst of the deep financial crisis that the country is going through.
This Thursday, after finally surrendering to the authorities after having fled, they granted him the bail (and he was given a $25 fine and a six-month travel ban).
“It was not an easy choice to do what I did“
Assaults of this nature are becoming more common in Lebanon, as anger grows over severe restrictions imposed by the economic crisis.
For the majority of the population, withdrawals are limited to US$400 per month from 2019when the value of the Lebanese currency plummeted and inflation soared.
The country is now mired in one of the most severe and prolonged depressions the world has ever seen, with more than 80% of the population living in poverty and struggling to buy food and medicine, notes BBC journalist David Gritten.
“It was not an easy choice to do what I did,” Hafiz explains to BBC News’ Rachael Thorn. “But I had reached the breaking point,”
“I apologize to all the people I scared. But how does that compare to the despair, anger and pain I feel every day, knowing my sister is dying?
“The banks are to blame, not me,” he said when asked if he accepts that he put other people at risk.
On the same day as Hafiz’s assault, a man carried out a similar heist in Aley, Lebanon’s fourth largest city, also with the intention of recovering his savings to support his family.
“Nobody has shown interest in our cause”
Ibrahim Abdallah of Depositors’ Outcry, an advocacy group for Lebanese with frozen savings, said people were at the edge of collapse.
“We have been petitioning the state for the last three years, we have demanded and protested peacefully, and no one has shown any interest in our cause,” Abdallah told the Reuters news agency.
Last month, a judge ordered the release of a man who held staff at another Beirut bank branch hostage for seven hours to withdraw $35,000 of their savings, which he said he needed to pay his father’s hospital bills.
Saad Azhari, director of Bloom Bank, told the BBC that he did not think it was right to try to recover the money by force or resort to violence.
“We are a country of laws, we have to have laws. I can really understand their anger and we are also angry about the situation. But by far the responsibility lies with the politicians of this country.”
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