In the eyes of the law, Sali Hafez is on the run, but she she calmly answers the questions of a Al-Jadeed TV journalist.
"I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Hafez says. She had just held-up her bank, the Blom Bank branch in Sodeco, and managed to escape through a back window with $13,000 dollars and some LL 30 million in her pocket.
Before going to her bank, Sali Hafez was in front of Parliament Wednesday morning to participate in the demonstration against the 2022 budget bill. She casually greeted a photographer with L'Orient-Le Jour, who said there was nothing to indicate she was about to "strike a blow."
The 28-year-old interior designer is known for her activism and was previously arrested several times during various protest movements. In 2016, she appeared in front of TV cameras in Martyrs' Square to protest Hezbollah's intervention in Syria. On Sept. 9, she was among the group of people arrested at the Palace of Justice during an incursion of protesters and families of victims of the Beirut port explosion.
At the time of the hold-up that occurred Wednesday morning, numerous videos circulated on social media showing the young woman, dressed in black, in possession of a fun that later turned out to be fake.
"It was my 5-year-old nephew's toy pistol" Hafez said to the camera without blinking. According to an AFP correspondent on the scene, she doused herself with gasoline and threatened to self-immolate if the bank did not turn over her funds.
Sali Hafez filmed part of the scene at the Blom Bank with her cell phone and the video was broadcasted live on her Facebook page. She introduced herself and said she was "not there to kill anyone or to cause a fire," but to "claim her rights" and retrieve her own money "for her sister, who has cancer and is dying in hospital".
'I support this action'
Her action was not on a whim. Sali Hafez was able to count on the support of the association "Cry of the Depositors."
"There were a dozen people there to support her action, including her sister Zeina and Sali's friend," said her lawyer, Rami Ollaik to L'Orient-Le Jour. Ollaik is the founder of the Mouttahidoun alliance, which defends Lebanese depositors against the banks.
"I went with them to the bank, I support this action, and I helped them to carry it out with the necessary strength so that they can recover their deposits", said Ollaik, adding that he encourages "other depositors to do the same ... when it comes to cases as serious" as that of Sali's sister.
BLOM Bank denounced the "orchestrated operation".in a statement released Wednesday
This is the third bank hold-up by depositors since the beginning of 2022, though the previous two were isolated incidents. On Aug. 11, Bassam Sheikh Hussein held Federal Bank employees and customers at gunpoint for hours while a crowd formed outside the bank in solidarity.
Sheikh Hussein was able to withdraw some $35,000 of the $200,000 he had in his account— which he needed to pay for his father's hospital bills — before being arrested by law enforcement. Last January, Abdallah Assaii took dozens hostage at a BBAC bank in Jeb Jennine, Bekaa, after the bank refused to pay him his savings in dollars. Assaii ultimately won his case and surrendered to the police without any reported casualties.
Sali Hafez, Bassam Sheikh Hussein and Abdallah Assaii have become heroes in the eyes of a part of the Lebanese populace. Since Wednesday morning, many social media users praised Hafez's "action" and "courage."
"Thank you Sali. Two weeks ago, I cried at the BLOM Bank. I needed money for a surgery. I am too weak to hold a gun and take what is mine," tweeted Leyla Sayed Hussein, an architect and researcher.
Selling a kidney
Many Lebanese people are at a loss as to how to cope with the drastic and illegal restrictions unilaterally imposed by banks on their deposits since the summer of 2019. The country has fallen, in all its beauty and absurdity. This is the story of a young woman at the end of her rope, ready to do anything to save her sister.
"In order to pay for [my sister's] care, I reached a point where I thought of selling my kidney," Hafez told Al-Jadeed. Hafez and her sister had $20,000 in savings in the bank, earned with the "sweat of [their] brow."
In recent months, their family had to sell most of their furniture and belongings to finance cancer treatments at the hospital. "No one could have suspected this, everyone thought we were comfortable, because we were before the crisis," Hafez said.
She said she had been "begging her bank" for months, who told her they could give her just $200 dollars a month at the rate of LL 12,000 on the dollar. This is "not even enough to pay for my sister's daily injection," Hafez said.
The bank refuted Hafez's allegations and said her case is currently under review. On her Facebook profile, Hafez posted a photo of her sick sister and baby daughter in a hospital bed the day before the hold-up, promising that she would do "everything to get her treated ... even if it costs [her] life."
Less than an hour after the hold-up ended, the Association of Depositors in Lebanon announced that another hostage situation was in progress at a BankMed branch in Aley. According to the association, Rami Charafeddine was able to leave with the sum of $30,000 before being arrested by security forces.
"More organized actions will follow in the coming days," warned Rami Ollaik. L'Orient-Le Jour tried to reach Sali Hafez, but to no avail. Shortly after leaving the bank, she wrote on her Facebook wall that "while the whole planet is under [her] building, [she is] at the airport."
"See you in Istanbul, ciao," she wrote jokingly.