Lebanon: suicide of indebted father sparks anger as economic woes grow

He was one of about 6,000 in the area laid off from quarries because of declining sales

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An unemployed, debt-ridden Lebanese father of two killed himself on Sunday in the remote north-east town of Arsal, as the country sinks deeper in an economic and financial crisis.

Local officials told The National that Naji Fleity, 40, committed suicide when he was unable to provide for his family after losing his job at a local stone quarry two months ago.

Fleity's last conversation was with his daughter, 6, who asked him for 1,000 Lebanese pounds (Dh2.45) to buy a manoushe, a popular Lebanese street food similar to a pizza, Rima Kronbi, deputy mayor of Arsal, told The National on Monday.

She said he told his daughter he did not have the money and later that day took his life.

Fleity left the army six years ago to look after his first wife, who had cancer diagnosed. He had two wives and two children.

Ms Kronbi, like Fleity’s family and many in Lebanon, are linking his death to the worsening financial situation that sparked mass rallies in the middle of October.

“The bad economy is putting a lot of pressure on people,” she said.

Ms Kronbi said about 6,000 employees at local stone quarries, the backbone of the area’s economy, recently lost their jobs.

Arsal stone quarries cannot compete with cheaper imports from abroad and Lebanese businessmen have stopped investing locally, she said.

For the past year, the national economy has been slowly grinding to a halt, pushing the Lebanese, who are increasingly losing their jobs or receiving only a portion of their monthly salaries, to stage nationwide protests since October 17.

People are demanding that leaders return “the looted money” from the state after years of corruption and nepotism.

The World Bank projects the economy will shrink 0.2 per cent in Lebanon this year.

Local media reported that Fleity had debts of 700,000 Lebanese pounds, but Ms Kronbi said his debts were more substantial.

His death shocked Lebanon, with politicians blamed for neglecting the increasing difficulties faced by Lebanese families.

The UN Development Programme says 27 per cent of Lebanese people live on less than $270 a month.

The price of basic goods such as olive oil and cheese has been increasing since banks restricted access to US dollars, used alongside the Lebanese pound, in early November.

While the official rate is about 1,500 pounds to the dollar, it has passed 2,000 on the black market.

Fleity's uncle Mahmoud told local daily Al Akhbar that his nephew's suicide was "only the beginning of a phenomenon that we will see in the future after people from Arsal, and other Lebanese, lose their pride and dignity".

Mahmoud berated the Lebanese government, accusing it of bankrupting the country “without paying attention to citizens who go hungry and die from unemployment, debt and lack of access to hospitals.”

Fleity’s death has sparked an outpouring of anger online, with Lebanese people demanding action to form a government that is able to tackle the current crisis after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29.

Discussions are yet to begin officially to select a new administration.

Jan Kubis, the UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon, asked if politicians would ever start tackling the crisis.

“How many Najis, may his soul rest in peace, will the leaders of Lebanon need to start dealing effectively with the economic and social crisis?” Mr Kubis asked.

“How much time they will give themselves before agreeing on the new PM and government that will respond to the cries, concerns and demands of the people?”

After some politicians said they would provide support to the Fleity family, Ms Kronbi said they did not want charity from outside.

“His family will only receive sympathy from locals, nothing from politicians," she said.

In a similar incident in February, father-of-two George Zreik died after setting himself on fire in front of his daughter’s school in northern Lebanon after he was unable to pay her fees.

At the time, a Kuwaiti politician donated $10,000 to help his family.