He Held Up a Bank to Get His Own Money


By the time Walid al-Hajjar stormed his bank armed with a jug of gasoline, four lighters and a willingness to set himself on fire, his wife’s bone cancer was too far gone for him to save her.

But he wanted to make her more comfortable in the time remaining — treated with painkillers in a hospital rather than writhing in agony at home, he recalled. And the family had already accumulated tens of thousands of dollars of debt from friends and relatives that needed to be repaid.

Mr. al-Hajjar, 48, had the money to pay for his wife’s treatment. But like so many other Lebanese, his life savings was being held hostage in his bank account: The central bank has not allowed depositors to withdraw more than a few hundred dollars a month since a financial collapse in 2019.

So, like other desperate Lebanese before him — some of them similarly compelled by the need for medical treatment — Mr. al-Hajjar went to his bank in November, threatening to burn it down unless it gave him some of the $250,000 he had in his account. More than 12 hours later, he left with $25,000 in stacks of cash.

“If you don’t go in and threaten to hurt them, they won’t give you anything,” he said months later.

Mr. al-Hajjar threated to burn down his bank so that he could get money from his account to treat his wife, Ola.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Virtually no one in Lebanon has been spared from the two-pronged financial collapse of both the banking system and the local currency, the lira, which has lost 98 percent of its value since 2019. But most of the burden has fallen on depositors who overnight lost access to money they had spent a lifetime saving.

The phenomenon of Lebanese depositors resorting to force to demand their own money has earned them the moniker “the world’s most honorable bank robbers.”

Before the financial collapse, Lebanon’s banking sector was admired and its outgoing central bank governor, Riad Salameh, hailed as a financial wizard for overseeing a system that maintained a stable currency even through wars. The country offered high interest rates that attracted billions in deposits in Lebanese banks.

At the same time, the lira was pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, and the country used both currencies interchangeably. Many, like the al-Hajjars, had Lebanese bank accounts denominated in dollars.

The central bank’s push to keep the lira pegged to the dollar required Lebanese banks to maintain large dollar reserves. To keep dollars coming in, the banks offered generous interest rates to depositors and paid that interest with newly deposited money. After the financial collapse, the World Bank called this system a Ponzi scheme.

Now, while the total deposits in Lebanese banks amount to some $92 billion, the banks have, at most, $20 billion on hand, the deputy prime minister, Saadeh al-Shami, told The New York Times this month.

“Every depositor deserves the last penny, but numbers do not lie,” he said. “We have a gap in the financial sector, close to $72 billion,” he added. “Where can we get the money from? We can’t print dollars.”

For many Lebanese, officials like Mr. Salameh, the central bank governor, represent a ruling class that has driven the country into financial catastrophe while enriching themselves and doing little to solve the crisis.

Mr. Salameh was the architect of Lebanese monetary policy for the past three decades, leading up to the financial collapse. As he prepares to leave his post at the end of this month — still defending his policies and tenure — bank depositors like Mr. al-Hajjar are no closer to getting access to their savings, while inflation and poverty grip the country.

Now, Mr. Salameh is under investigation in Lebanon and has been charged with money laundering and other financial crimes by France and Germany. Both countries have issued international arrest warrants for him. Mr. Salameh says he is a scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.

In a TV interview last month, he insisted that bank depositors would get their money back. Despite those assurances, however, the central bank and government have not taken the steps needed to ensure this.

A $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan, agreed to more than a year ago, remains in limbo because the government has not made the economic and political changes required to get the money.

A separate plan to ensure the return of deposits up to $100,000 and to set up a recovery fund for larger deposits is also no closer to government approval, said Mr. al-Shami, the deputy prime minister.

And Lebanon’s government — long riddled with corruption and dysfunction — has been without a president since September.

For Mr. al-Hajjar, the hard times came after three decades in which he prospered in Lebanon’s hot banking and real estate markets. He bought and sold livestock, opened and sold three butcher shops and flipped both land and real estate. He put his money in Credit Libanais bank, and with generous interest, it grew into a comfortable nest egg.

“We saved the money so I could control my life,” he said. “We thought we could relax.”

Instead, he and his children said, his wife spent her last months in so much pain that the slightest touch hurt.

Two days after Mr. al-Hajjar threatened to burn down the bank near his hometown in Marj Ali, his father died of kidney cancer. Forty days after that, his wife, Ola, passed away at 41.

He said he had gone to his bank three times with bills from various hospitals, pleading for access to his money. On his fourth visit, he went with a warning. The fifth time, he came with the gasoline and lighters.

More than seven months have passed since that day, and Mr. al-Hajjar is now working long hours at his brother-in-law’s butcher shop and raising his three children alone. His youngest, Kareem, 12, works alongside him during the summer, his tiny frame wielding a cleaver.

He said he still owes family and friends $22,000.

“She is at rest in the ground and I am stuck with this work,” he said last month.

The family is able to cover daily expenses, supported by investments he had kept out of the bank, including some apartments it owns and rents. But many life plans are out of reach, and the family worries about another medical emergency or unforeseen expense.

Most days, his oldest son, Ahmad, 22, visits the graves of his mother and grandfather. He crouches next to the head of her grave and speaks to her in hushed tones, updating her about life and his studies.

“They ruined our lives,” he said as he drove away from the cemetery one recent day. “They’re robbing us, and the government is protecting them.”

Mr. al-Hajjar says that he tells his children never to put their money in banks.

Across Lebanon, depositors’ anger is reflected in the graffiti and damage to banks, which have become metal fortresses.

Most weeks, members of an organization called the Depositors Outcry Association protest outside banks in the capital, Beirut. Sometimes, they yell and spray paint their frustration on the walls. Other times, they light tires on fire and smash glass.

At a recent protest outside the central bank, one man scrawled on a cement barrier in red paint: “The crook Riad.”

Mr. al-Hajjar recalled how, as the cancer spread throughout his wife’s body, she prepared for a future she wouldn’t see. She bought new sofas for the family’s living room, added decorative touches to the front of their building and planned to beautify a small garden outside, all for when her children got married.

Now, in that garden, Mr. al-Hajjar grows enough vegetables to sustain them and keeps the goats and cows for the butcher shop. After feeding them on a recent day, he returned to the balcony of his apartment — in the mountains southeast of Beirut — overlooking a lush valley and, on a clear day, the Mediterranean Sea.

As he sat with his daughter, they followed updates of an ongoing bank holdup — there have been more than 20 since 2019. Like Mr. al-Hajjar, a man had taken a jug of gas into a bank, demanding his money. The following week, another man armed with a grenade went to the same bank Mr. al-Hajjar had held up and demanded his money.

Mr. al-Hajjar, who was jailed for two days, said he often thought about holding up his bank again. His daughter, Claire, 19, seemed surprised at first. But then she considered it for a few seconds.

“He’s not doing anything wrong,” she said. “He’s taking what is his right.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.


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