Financial crisis in LebanonBeirut's bank robber folk heroes
Imagine needing money urgently. Nothing unusual. But it becomes grotesque when the money you need is actually in your own account at the bank, yet the bank refuses to let you withdraw the amount requested. This is what people in Lebanon have been experiencing for the past three years. No matter how much money they have in the bank: due to the country's economic and banking crisis, withdrawals are limited to 400 dollars per month.
So what do you do when a family member is taken into hospital with a life-threatening illness and there's a bill of several thousand dollars to be paid? Desperate to access their own money, some Lebanese have taken assertive action and robbed the bank responsible for withholding their funds.
There is something exciting about climbing the stairs of a typical middle-class house in Beirut's Ras El-Naba neighbourhood and waiting for a bank robber to open the door. Her appearance is familiar. Footage of her robbing the bank was posted on Facebook. It shows a resolute young woman marching into a bank in Beirut last September, holding a gun in the air.
Loud shouts are heard inside. And then the most iconic scene of all: she stands on a desk, towering over the bank employees and customers, the gun casually tucked into her waistband. It has something of Thelma and Louise and Hollywood about it.
There's a surprise in store when a welcoming Sally Hafez opens the door. So not criminal, so not Hollywood. Sally smiles, casual in her jeans and blue and white striped T-shirt. She is relatively small. On the desk in the bank with her gun, which later turned out to be her nephew's toy gun, she looked much taller.
Her father and aunt are sitting on the sofa in their leisure suits. 28-year-old Sally still lives in her parents' house. It has something of a museum about it. There's an antique iron on display on a shelf; a large carved wooden giraffe stands next to the low table on which Arabic mocha is served.
"I had to make a decision – fast"
"I don't do things by halves. When I tackle something, it has to work out," says Sally at the outset of her interview with qantara.de. On her mobile phone, she shows the reason for her bank robbery: a picture of her sister with cancer. A young woman is lying in a hospital bed, half her hair has fallen out. Her daughter snuggles up to her. It is a picture of complete exhaustion, just before the end.
To save her sister's life, Sally needed money. Actually, the family had enough money in their account at the Lebanese BLOM BANK. "I went to the bank not just once, but dozens of times," Sally recalls. "They always said they couldn't give me the money." Getting treatment for her sister, she says, was not the problem. "There is no functioning state in Lebanon to protect me. We are ruled by a mafia that has transferred our money abroad," she says, visibly angry.
Indeed, prior to 2019, Lebanese banks had been touting high interest rates for dollars. But at some point, the money stopped coming. The Ponzi scheme collapsed. Moreover, the banks had lent a lot of money to the Lebanese state, which disappeared into corrupt channels and was never paid back. In short: a large part of the dollars had disappeared. That is why people these days are only permitted to withdraw a few hundred dollars – their savings are basically gone.
"Being powerless, feeling broken and defeated – all these things came together and made me feel I had nothing to lose," Sally summed up. It strengthened her resolve. "There was no time to lose for my sister's survival. Failure was not an option. I was going to get the money, no matter what. So I set off for the bank." After all, she said, other Lebanese had successfully robbed banks before her to get at their own money.
"Lebanon's Robin Hood"
Which brings us to the man they call Lebanon's Robin Hood. Bassam Al-Sheich Hussein practically invented the method of retrieving money at gunpoint from Lebanese financial institutions. He lives in one of the poorer suburbs south of Beirut. From his rooftop, where we meets up, you can see the sea, but not hear it. The nearby runway of Beirut airport drowns everything out.
Bassam looks much bolder than Sally, with his grey-black beard and hair tied in a ponytail. A tattooed claw is emblazoned on one of his muscular arms. The 42-year-old's face is scarred by life.
"I cleaned my rifle and got a can of petrol. I needed to show I was serious. After all, you can't rob a bank with a cup of petrol. I would have set everyone on fire too: after all, my rights were at stake," he began his story.
The background to his crime was similar to Sally's. Bassem also needed to pay a hospital bill, this time for his father. Prior to that, his small supermarket had gone bankrupt.
He had run up debts he couldn't pay back, despite the fact that he had 210,000 dollars in the bank. Years of savings from working in Australia and the proceeds of a house sale.
Bassem went to his bank on Hamra Street in West Beirut dozens of times, begging the branch manager to pay him his own money. In the end, the staff wouldn't even approve the $400 maximum withdrawal per month. The bank simply didn't have any dollars, they said.
That was the last straw for Bassam. He planned the robbery.
At nine o'clock in the morning on 11 August 2022, he parked his car in front of the bank, left his gun and the petrol can in the car and went inside; it was the bank's last chance to settle the matter peacefully, so to speak.
Once again, the branch manager brushed him off. He had already explained to Bassam that he shouldn't come by. They would call him when there was any money.
Bassam returned to his car to fetch what he needed for the robbery. The surveillance camera shows him storming into the bank screaming and shouting: "Give me back my money, you bastards."
Bassam's description of the incident is vivid: "I slammed the door of the bank. Everyone started screaming when they saw my gun and the petrol can. 'Nobody move!' I shouted and poured petrol over the bank counter, the computers and the bank employees. I approached the branch manager, who had so often refused to pay me my money, pointed my gun at him and demanded he open the safe."
Seven hours of bargaining ensued, during which Bassam was holed up in the bank with his hostages. "Initially they offered me $400. I said, do you think I'm stupid, that I'm doing all this for $400? I said I want my $210,000 and I held my gun to the branch manager's face."
"Give me my money back, you bastards!"
400 dollars became 5,000. Then more money was brought in from other branches. In the end, Bassam settled for 35,000 dollars. This was presented to his brother at home before he released the hostages one by one and turned himself in after seven hours. "I said it's over, gave the store manager my gun and opened the door." He walked outside.
"I thought, that's a few years in prison. After all, I had a gun, I had petrol on me and I had taken hostages, although nobody was hurt. But I got my due," he recalled. Not only a huge police contingent was waiting for him outside, however. A little further away, because the road was blocked off and not visible from inside the bank, stood the media and a large crowd cheering him on.
For seven hours, the whole country had been cheering with him, while the Lebanese TV stations reported live on the raid. The subsequent police interrogations were also friendly. Even the police officers said, to Bassam's surprise, that he had only taken what belonged to him. Due to public pressure, no charges were filed and the bank also withdrew its complaint. Friends and family had threatened the bank to set fire to all ATMs at all branches if Bassam was convicted.
Sally's bank robbery was similar. She entered the bank with friends, who pretended they didn't belong together, but then shouted loudly when Sally came in. One of them filmed the whole thing and put it on Facebook. Sally withdrew $14,000 from her account. She insisted on getting a receipt for the withdrawal. "So as not to give the wrong impression," Sally said. Only then did the branch manager sound the alarm.
Sally ran for the exit, threw away the toy gun and ran home, one street away. Breathless, she reached her flat. "What bank robber walks straight home from the crime scene?" she asked. Since her name and address were known to the bank, it wasn't long before a large police contingent gathered on her street. Sally's only thought was to get the money to safety for her sister.
What followed was pure cinema. Sally posted on her Facebook account that she was already at the airport. "See you in Istanbul," she wrote. Most of the police then left the street in the direction of the airport. Sally put her money and a pillow under her clothes, put on a black abaya and a headscarf and called for an ambulance.
Then she ran down the stairs screaming, reportedly in labour pains as if she were about to give birth. "I hope it's a boy," she shouted to the policemen and got into the ambulance. She hid in a house on the Bekaa Plain on the Syrian border and made sure her sister got the money.
What astonished her most was that over the next few days, 15 bank robberies of a similar pattern were reported. During her robbery, which was filmed for a Facebook post, Sally had called on people to do the same and take what was theirs. "I prayed to God that no one would rob a bank and take what wasn't theirs, or that, God forbid, someone would even get hurt," she recalled, the fear still present in her voice.
After 20 days, she turned herself in. Like Bassem, Sally was hailed as a folk hero. "One of the strangest things was that the examining magistrate asked me if I could also get his money from the bank." She laughed aloud. She was never charged. Her case was also shelved by the court due to public pressure. Her bank withdrew the charges because it feared the wrath of the people. Sally was released on the same day.
Sometimes she still walks past her bank and waves to the employees. In the beginning they set off the alarm, now they just lock the door. The security guards inside laugh and wave back in a friendly way. "So much could have gone wrong, I don't even want to think about that today," Sally says. "But I managed to get my sister her treatment. For that reason alone, I don't regret a thing."
And Bassam? To this day, his one regret is that he didn't get the rest of his money. "What is better?" he asked. "To steal, or to rob a bank to get your own money?"
© Qantara.de 2023
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