'I am not the criminal' says Lebanese woman on the run after holding up Beirut bank

Interior designer Sali Hafez demanded her savings at gunpoint to help treat her sister's cancer

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A Lebanese interior designer who held up a Beirut bank at gunpoint to access her family savings insists she is not the criminal.

Sali Hafez, 28, is on the run from authorities after carrying out the heist to be able to help pay for her sister's cancer care.

"We are in the country of mafias. If you are not a wolf, the wolves will eat you," she told Reuters from Lebanon's rugged eastern Bekaa Valley, where she has been in hiding.

Ms Hafez held up a Beirut branch of Blom Bank last week, taking by force about $13,000 in savings in her sister's account frozen by capital controls that were imposed overnight by commercial banks in 2019 but never made legal via legislation.

Dramatic footage of the incident shows her holding what later turned out to be a toy gun and standing on top of a desk, bossing around employees who hand her cash.

It turned her into an instant folk hero in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are denied access to their savings.

A growing number are taking matters into their own hands, exasperated by a three-year financial implosion that authorities have left to fester and which the World Bank described as "orchestrated by the country's elite".

Ms Hafez was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week, prompting banks to shut their doors citing security concerns, and call for security support from the government.

Sali Hafez, a young Lebanese activist, on September 14 held up a Beirut bank with a toy gun and walked out with thousands of dollars to pay for treatment for her ill sister. AFP

George Haj, of the bank employees' syndicate, said anger should be directed at the Lebanese state, which was most to blame for the crisis.

He said 6,000 bank employees had lost their jobs since the crisis began.

Authorities condemned the hold-ups and say they are preparing a security plan for banks.

But depositors argue that bank owners and shareholders have enriched themselves by getting high interest payments for lending the government depositors' money and are prioritising the banks over people rather than enacting an IMF rescue plan.

The government says it is working hard to implement IMF reforms and aims to secure a $3 billion bail-out this year.

The series of raids have been met with widespread support, including from crowds that gather outside the banks when they hear a hold-up is taking place to cheer them on.

"Maybe they saw me as a hero because I was the first woman who does this in a patriarchal society where a woman's voice is not supposed to be heard," Ms Hafez said.

"They are all in cahoots to steal from us and leave us to go hungry and die slowly."

When her sister began losing hope that she would be able to afford costly treatment to help regain mobility and speech impaired by brain cancer, and the bank declining to provide the savings, Ms Hafez said she decided to act.

Blom Bank said in a statement that the branch had been co-operative with her request for funds but asked for documentation, as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions to the informal controls.

Ms Hafez then returned two days later with a toy gun she had seen her nephews playing with and a small amount of fuel that she mixed with water and spilt on to an employee.

Before her raid, she watched popular Egyptian black comedy Irhab wal Kabab — meaning Terrorist and Kabab — in which a man frustrated with government corruption holds up a state building and demands kebabs for the hostages because of the high price of meat.

Ms Hafez managed to get $13,000 from a total sum of $20,000 — enough to cover travel expenses for her sister and about a month of treatment — and made sure to sign a receipt so that she would not be accused of theft.

Sali Hafiz in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on September 20. Reuters

To aid her escape, Ms Hafez posted on Facebook that she was already at the airport and on her way to Istanbul. She ran home and disguised herself in a robe and headscarf and placed a bundle of clothes on her belly to make herself appear pregnant.

A police officer who knocked on her door "must have been scared I would give birth in front of him. I went downstairs in front of them all, like 60 or 70 people ... they were wishing me luck with the birth. It was ... like the movies," she said, after they failed to recognise her.

Two of Ms Hafez's close friends with her at the bank hold-up were detained after the incident over charges of threatening bank employees and holding them against their will, and released on bail on Wednesday.

Lebanon's Internal Security Forces did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

Ms Hafez said she would hand herself in once judges end a crippling strike that has slowed legal procedures and left detainees languishing in jail.

Abdallah Al Saii, an acquaintance of Ms Hafez who held up a bank in January to access $50,000 of his own savings, said more hold-ups were coming.

"Things will have to get worse so that they can get better," Mr Saii said.

"When the state can't do anything for you and can't even provide a tiny bit of hope over what lies in store, then we're living by the law of the jungle."

Updated: September 21, 2022, 1:50 PM
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