Heists, hostages, sit-ins: Lebanese desperation to withdraw cash from banks

BEIRUT, 25 Feb 2023:

Lebanese citizens are turning to radical measures to access their savings as the nation’s economic woes deepen and banks shutter up.

The dire situation has prompted banks to impose stiff rules on savings accounts, limiting the amount of cash customers can withdraw and locking many people out of their foreign savings accounts.

Some customers locked out of their accounts have resorted to sit-ins, bank heists and the use of weapons and gasoline cans to coerce bankers into handing over their savings.

Hussain Hassan Saado shared how he relied on his 90-year-old mother to gain access to her savings.

He set the scene by going to his mother’s bank to explain that she was elderly and lived on the seventh floor of an apartment block where the elevator was unreliable due to Beirut’s frequent blackouts.

The following day, Saado took his mother to the branch with the help of several people.

The security guards let them in because the manager was under the impression the older woman was there to withdraw a small amount of cash.

“When we told him that we wanted all our money, he opened the account, saw that it was in dollars and was stunned.

“This is where the operation began (…) He kept repeating that he could not give it to us and I told him that we would not leave.”

Saado was aware that retrieving the money could take a long time, so he had brought medicines and food for his mother.

During the negotiations, the regional bank director, security officers, intelligence services and the press started to arrive. Meanwhile Saado called the Association of Depositors.

Amid increasing pressure and as Saado’s mother got increasingly fatigued, the bank finally agreed to pay out US$10,800 of the US$21,000 she had in her account.

Ahmad Al Hajjar said his father was among the many who have been unable to access his savings in times of great need.

He said his father had gone to his bank ready to set himself ablaze in order to access savings that were vital for paying the medical bills for his cancer-stricken wife.

He had exhausted all other legal avenues, Al Hajjar junior said, adding that his mother continued to deteriorate.

“He went to the bank to get his money by force, he was going to set himself on fire just to take his own money,” the young man said.

All his savings were in the bank, including the profits obtained after selling two plots of land and three shops.

The total amount included US$80,000 and around £750 million Lebanese his father had traded into the local currency just two months before the financial crisis in 2019.

With no access to their savings, the family was forced to borrow money to pay for Al Hajjar’s mother’s regular hospital visits.

“My father would go (to the bank) and ask for what was rightfully his, but they would not give it to him. Eventually, we had debts with people and how were we going to pay them off?” Al Hajjar posed.

By threatening to self-immolate, Al Hajjar’s father only managed to secure US$25,000 of his savings. He was arrested for doing so.

Ahmeda Al Hajjar said his grandfather died from a heart attack following the arrest while his mother died due to the frozen funds.

“The bank killed two of ours.”