Lebanon woman who stole own savings on the run

STORY: Lebanese interior designer Sali Hafiz has been on the run from authorities since she forced a bank to release her family savings at gunpoint.

But she insists she is not the criminal - just in desperate need of funds to help treat her sister, who has cancer.

Hafiz spoke to Reuters from Lebanon's rugged eastern Bekaa valley, where she has been in hiding.

"I entered the bank. What happened happened, you saw it. We closed the door. I cocked the gun, even though I did not intend to use it, but when I saw the operation failing, that they noticed the man and started pushing him, I remembered, used it and started throwing fuel. Of course, the bank manager - who the day before was showing off and not paying attention to me - started telling me 'whatever you want' because nothing works but like this...

If you are not a wolf, the wolves will eat you."

In a Beirut branch of BLOM Bank last week, Hafiz retook some $13,000 in savings in her sister's account by force, with what later turned out to be a toy gun.

It had been frozen by capital controls imposed overnight by commercial banks in 2019.

They were never made legal via legislation.

To aid her escape, Hafiz posted on Facebook that she was already at the airport and on her way to Istanbul.

She ran home, disguised herself in a robe and headscarf and placed a bundle of clothes on her belly to make her appear pregnant, before managing to escape police officers.

The footage of the bank event turned her into an instant hero, in a country where hundreds of thousands are locked out of their savings.

Exasperated by a three-year financial crisis, a growing number of people are taking matters into their own hands.

Hafiz was the first of at least seven savers who held up banks last week.

The series of raids have been met with widespread support, with crowds even gathering to cheer outside banks when they hear a holdup is taking place.

Some banks have shut their doors citing security concerns, and called for support from the government.

Authorities have condemned the holdups and say they are preparing a security plan for banks.

And the bank employees syndicate said the holdups were misguiding anger that should be directed at the Lebanese state, which was most to blame for the crisis.

But depositors like Hafiz argue that bank owners and shareholders have enriched themselves by getting high interest payments for lending the government people's money - and are prioritizing the banks over people.

"Don't think that senior authority figures in Lebanon do not have interests with the banks. They are all in cahoots to steal from us and leave us to go hungry and die slowly."

The government says it is working hard to implement reforms and aims to secure a big bailout this year.

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

BLOM Bank said that the branch had been cooperative with Hafiz's request for funds.

But asked for documentation, as they do for all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions, to the informal controls.

Hafiz says she will hand herself in once judges end a crippling strike that has slowed legal procedures and left detainees languishing in jail.