Instant folk heroine: Lebanese woman who stole her own life savings says she’s not the criminal
BEKAA-TAL, Lebanon: Lebanese interior designer Sali Hafiz, 28, is on the run from authorities after forcing a bank at gunpoint to release her family’s savings to treat her sister with cancer. She insists that she is not the criminal.
“We are in mafia country. If you’re not a wolf, the wolves will eat you,” she said, standing on a dirt road somewhere in Lebanon’s rugged eastern Bekaa Valley, where she has been hiding ever since.
Hafiz raided a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week and violently stole around $13,000 in savings in her sister’s account that were frozen by capital controls imposed on commercial banks overnight in 2019 but never legalized by law.
Dramatic footage of the incident, in which she cocks a toy gun and stands on a desk to boss around employees who hand her wads of cash, made her an instant folk hero in a country where hundreds of thousands of people are deprived of their life savings.
A growing number are taking matters into their own hands, angered by a three-year financial implosion that authorities are allowing to smolder – leading the World Bank to describe it as “orchestrated by the country’s elite”.
Hafiz was the first of at least seven savers to rob banks last week, prompting the banks to close their doors citing security concerns and asking the government for security assistance.
George Hajj of the bank employees’ syndicate said the raids were a misleading anger aimed at the Lebanese state, which bears the main blame for the crisis, noting that around 6,000 bank employees had lost their jobs since the crisis began.
Authorities have condemned the robberies and say they are preparing a security plan for the banks.
But depositors argue that bank owners and shareholders have enriched themselves by receiving high interest payments for lending the government’s depositors’ money and that they are prioritizing the banks over the people rather than enacting an IMF bailout plan.
The government says it is working hard to implement IMF reforms and is aiming to secure a $3 billion bailout this year.
The series of raids drew widespread support, including from crowds who gather outside banks when they hear a raid is taking place to cheer them on.
“Maybe they saw me as a heroine because I was the first woman to do that in a patriarchal society where a woman’s voice shouldn’t be heard,” Hafiz said, adding that she had no intention of harming anyone , but weary of government inaction .
“They are all in league to rob us and leave us starving and slowly dying,” she said.
When her sister lost hope that she could afford costly treatment to regain mobility and speech impaired by brain cancer and the bank refused to provide the savings, Hafiz said she decided to act.
BLOM Bank said in a statement that the branch had been cooperative in their request for funds but had asked for documentation, as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exemptions from the informal controls.
Hafiz then returned two days later with a toy gun she had seen her nephews play with and a small amount of fuel, which she mixed with water and spilled on an employee.
Before her raid, she watched the popular black Egyptian comedy Irhab w Kabab – or Terrorist and Kabab – in which a man frustrated by government corruption raids a state building and buys kebabs for meat because of the high price of meat who demands hostages.
She managed to get $13,000 out of a total 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 she wouldn’t be accused of theft.
To help her escape, Hafiz posted on Facebook that she was already at the airport and on her way to Istanbul. She ran home and dressed up in a robe and headscarf and placed a bundle of clothes on her stomach to appear pregnant.
A police officer who knocked on her door “must have been afraid I was going to give birth before he did. I went downstairs in front of all of them, in front of 60 or 70 people… they wished me good luck with the birth. It was… like going to the movies,” she said after they didn’t recognize her.
Two close friends of Hafiz who were with her in the bank robbery were arrested after the incident on charges of threatening and holding bank employees 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.
Hafiz said she would turn herself in once judges ended a crippling strike that is slowing court proceedings and leaving inmates languishing in jail.
Abdallah Al-Saii, an acquaintance of Hafiz, who robbed a bank in January to get about $50,000 of his own life savings, said more robberies were coming.
“Things have to get worse in order for them to get better,” Saii said, puffing on a cigarette at his supermarket in Bekaa.
“If the state can’t do anything for you, and doesn’t offer even a modicum of hope for what’s to come, then we’re living by the law of the jungle.”