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Lebanese people are staging robberies and sit-ins to access their bank accounts

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What if the only way to get your money out of the bank was to stage a robbery or a sit-in? That's exactly what's happening in Lebanon. When the country's economy collapsed in 2019, banks froze people out of their accounts. Destitute Lebanese have taken to demanding their holdings at gunpoint or with disruptive protests. And some do get a little of their savings back. NPR's Ruth Sherlock went to a recent standoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: When we arrive at the bank in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the atmosphere is tense.

There's a lot of security and police outside. There's army with M16 rifles. Internal Security Forces gathered outside.

Sometimes the depositor holding up the bank to demand their savings is armed. In this case, we're told the woman inside, Zahra Khaled, is not. She's in a wheelchair and is refusing to leave. Her family and other depositors have come to support her, crowding the entrance to the bank.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So basically...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Shouting in Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Suddenly, there's a commotion by the door. Zahra Khaled is wheeled out by her adult son, Ismail. And they are beside themselves.

ISMAIL KHALED: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "The bank brought the cops on us. We're only asking for our rights," Ismail Khaled shouts. "You've left us to starve." "May God smite our leaders," his mother cries. After hours of negotiations, they've been escorted out of the bank by the police empty-handed.

The World Bank says Lebanon's leaders spent decades running the country's economy like a Ponzi scheme. According to the bank's investigation, they hollowed out public services to enrich themselves and those around them. When everything collapsed in 2019, the report says bank owners should have assumed the losses. But instead, they simply froze the depositors' accounts. Now, more than 80% of the population lives in poverty, including the family of Zahra Khaled in Tripoli.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CLOPPING)

SHERLOCK: After she leaves the bank, we go with her to her home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: It's an apartment with beautiful, traditional Lebanese tiles on the floor and completely empty. She says they've sold all the furniture. What used to be in here? Was there a bed or...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: They tell me they've sold the furniture piece by piece to survive. A small coffee table in the mostly empty living room is piled with the contents of the fridge, which they say they sold the day before. They have bank statements showing that they have almost $90,000 in their account. Some of that money comes from a house they just sold, but now they can't get to it. Khaled's son, Ismail, and her son-in-law have both lost their jobs. Through an interpreter, Ismail tells me how life now is humiliation.

I KHALED: (Through interpreter) It's very humiliating because they're forced to now - to take on credit stuff from the grocer's. He can't bring himself to put his eyes with the eyes of the grocer.

SHERLOCK: His mother, Zahra Khaled, has already lost a leg to diabetes. And she needs an MRI on her other leg, but she can't afford it. And that's what prompted them to do the sit-in at the bank, says Khaled's daughter, Amina.

AMINA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "When your mother needs medication and you have money you can't access, what do you do? What choice do you have," she asks.

Bank heists are now almost a daily reality in Lebanon. In many cases, depositors come armed. In some cases, they have toy guns. Reportedly, so far, no one has been killed. Most of those that do get money only take what they're owed. And now the depositors are becoming a more organized movement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We meet one of the most active groups, called Cry of the Depositors, at a protest they're staging in Beirut's swanky, downtown district. The government is hosting a banking conference at a hotel there, so the depositors have set up loudspeakers pointing at the hotel entrance to send their message.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: They call the bankers mafia and thieves and demand that the heads of Lebanon's banks be jailed. In recent months, the group has offered legal advice to depositors who've robbed banks, or they've shown up at heists to offer moral support.

IBRAHIM ABDULLAH: He gets into the bank. We are outside. Yeah, do it. Come on. So it's like we are giving him some motivation.

SHERLOCK: Ibrahim Abdullah, a spokesman for the movement, says he knows what they do is controversial, and they don't want to be criminals.

ABDULLAH: It's not the right way. It's not the right way. We are looking for a solution for our deposits.

SHERLOCK: Abdullah sells real estate and says he has millions frozen in the bank, and his family can barely get by without it.

ABDULLAH: My son sometimes, let's go have dinner. I'm not - I can't afford to have a dinner. And I have millions in the bank.

SHERLOCK: He wants answers. Will the perpetrators of this economic collapse be held accountable? Will he get his money back? I go across the road to the banking conference to try to get answers.

People arriving in very expensive cars - Mercedes, Land Cruisers, bulletproof vehicles, blacked-out windows.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: OK, let's sit somewhere.

SHERLOCK: I meet Kamel Wazni from the Lebanese control commission, which supervises Lebanon's banking sector.

KAMEL WAZNI: We've been trying to monitor and force banks to comply with our regulations.

SHERLOCK: Wazni points out that depositors are allowed to withdraw a maximum of $400 per month.

WAZNI: Of course, it's not satisfactory where people hope and expectation and their hard work, but that's what we are able to provide.

SHERLOCK: He says the commission is working to reform the banks, but he can't rule out that some of the depositors' money might be gone for good.

WAZNI: It's really difficult at this point to try to answer the questions that been posed by the public.

SHERLOCK: Some banks do respond to depositors' demand for help. Several days after her sit-in in Tripoli, Zahra Khaled's family calls to say her bank has agreed to give the family some of their savings so she can pay for medical care. So some funds are released like this, on a case-by-case basis. But overall, for now, there's no solution. And most depositors question if they will ever see their money again.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.