A woman carrying a toy pistol and a dozen activists broke into a Beirut bank branch on Wednesday, taking $13,000 from what the activists say were her trapped savings.
Sali Hafez, who herself is a known activist, told 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."
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.
Cancer treatment for her sister costs $50,000, she said.
Sali and the activists entered BLOM Bank's branch in Sodeco and stormed into the manager's office.
The woman 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."
Hafiz is a 28-year-old activist and interior designer, her sister Zeina told AFP.
She said the family had not been in touch with Hafiz since the heist and was not involved in its planning.
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.
Pictures and footage of her standing on a desk inside the bank carrying a gun went viral on social media.
"Thank you," one Twitter user wrote. "Two weeks ago I cried at Blom Bank. I needed the money for a surgery. I am too weak to hold a gun and take what is mine."
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.
Sali's mother said she supported the move. "It is our money and our right," the mother told a local TV channel, adding that her other daughter, Sali's sister, is severely sick and had attempted suicide.
"She was forced to take her savings by force after the bank refused to give us the money, although we had explained our urgent need to hospitalize Sali's sister," the mother said.
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.
"They doused gasoline everywhere inside, and took out a lighter and threatened to light it," Nadine Nakhal, a customer at the bank, told The Associated Press. She said the armed woman threatened to shoot the manager if she did not receive her money.
The activists accompanying the woman were from a group called Depositors' Outcry. Some entered the bank with her, while others staged a protest at the entrance. The woman eventually left with cash in a plastic bag, witnesses said.
Security forces standing outside arrested several of the activists, including a man carrying a handgun.
An AFP correspondent at the scene said gasoline was poured inside the bank during the heist and a gun was later found on the ground, although it was not immediately clear if it was real.
The correspondent said Hafiz and suspected accomplices managed to escape through a smashed window out the back before security forces arrived.
The heist lasted under an hour.
TV networks later reported another similar incident in Aley. OTV said the depositor M. SH. managed to get $30,000 from that bank before being arrested by the Internal Security Forces.
The incident 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.
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.
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."
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