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A man who held up a bank demanding his own money becomes an unlikely hero

Many in Lebanon can't access their life savings because of the economic crisis. A hostage-taker in Beirut surrendered in exchange for some of his funds, which he needed for his father's medical bills.

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Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein looks through the bank's window in Beirut, Lebanon during the hostage standoff on Thursday. He surrended after several hours of negotiations in exchange for a portion of his savings.
Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein looks through the bank's window in Beirut, Lebanon during the hostage standoff on Thursday. He surrended after several hours of negotiations in exchange for a portion of his savings. Hussein Malla | AP

A man who held multiple people hostage inside a Beirut bank in an attempt to get access to his own savings was hailed as a hero in Lebanon, which is suffering from its worst economic crisis in modern history.

Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old food delivery driver, held up to 10 people hostage during the seven-hour standoff last Thursday, according to The Associated Press. He entered the Federal Bank with a shotgun and canister of gasoline, fired three warning shots, locked himself in with several bank employees and customers and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to withdraw his savings — which he said he needed to pay his father's medical bills.

Like many people in Lebanon, Hussein had been unable to access his life savings because of the strict limits the government put on withdrawals of foreign currency assets — effectively freezing them — when the economic crisis started in 2019. He had some $210,000 trapped in the bank, the AP reported.

The incident ended hours of negotiations later, and without any injuries, when Hussein was arrested after surrendering in exchange for what his lawyer said was $35,000 of his money. His wife told reporters outside that he "did what he had to do," while his brother called him "a decent man" who "takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others."

An angry bank client speaks with security forces outside the bank in Beirut on Thursday.
An angry bank client speaks with security forces outside the bank in Beirut on Thursday. Anwar Amro | AFP via Getty Images

People are angry at Lebanon's government and banks

In the meantime, sympathetic bystanders gathered at the scene to show support for him and rally against Lebanon's political and financial leaders, who are widely blamed for forcing much of the country's population into poverty (the World Bank has described the situation as a "deliberate depression ... orchestrated by the country's elite").

People praised Hussein in social media posts, while some bystanders chanted, "Down with the rule of the banks!"

Nearly 80% of Lebanon's population now lives in poverty, according to Human Rights Watch. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value since October 2019 and inflation has soared to a whopping 890% percent — making it hard for most people to access basic goods like food, water and health care.

On top of that, fuel shortages cause widespread electricity blackouts (which HRW says last up to 23 hours a day) and the country's strained health care system is on the verge of collapse, according to the UN.

Rami Rajeh, who was in the crowd outside the bank, tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel that last week's incident was both symbolic and a symptom of the broader economic meltdown.

"[It] sheds light on a crisis that has dragged, where the ruling elite have shoved aside one proposal for a solution after the other — there have been four proposals that they have just put to death," he says. "And this is creating a lot of frustration, and one way that it manifests itself is in people taking matters into their own hands."

While Rajeh understands the frustration, he thinks "hero" is kind of a big title to bestow on the perpetrator.

"The reason I say that is because the next day, if you're a depositor that had money and hard currency, nothing changed for you," he adds.

In May, workers removed sections of a concrete barrier that security forces had erected in 2020 to block off the streets leading to the country's parliament building in Beirut.
In May, workers removed sections of a concrete barrier that security forces had erected in 2020 to block off the streets leading to the country's parliament building in Beirut. Joseph Eid | AFP via Getty Images

Life in Beirut, three years into the economic crisis

Rajeh says daily life in Beirut is dirtier, darker and more dangerous than it was just two or three years ago.

About half of the commercial areas that line the streets are visibly empty, and "you have to convince yourself that it's okay to walk from Point A to Point B at night because the streets are all so dark."

Rajeh says his family's income and purchasing power have diminished, so they're spending more on things like running water, electricity and medical insurance than they have in the past. The bills have increased in two ways, he adds: They're paying more for less.

It's also not uncommon to hear about patients' relatives or siblings looking for a certain medication, he says, because even if they can afford it, they probably can't find it.

Rajeh, who is a father of two, stays in Beirut because even though their family is struggling, they are able to make ends meet. He says as long as they don't feel that they are compromising their kids' safety and education, they don't plan to leave. But his vision for the country is not an optimistic one.

"I feel you can sense the air of, I don't want to say despair, but there's a lot of anger and there's a depression because it's lasted so long," he says. "There doesn't seem to be an end in sight."

This interview was conducted by Leila Fadel, produced by Ben Abrams and Shelby Hawkins and edited by John Helton.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A judge in Lebanon has refused to release a gunman who held up to 10 hostages at a Beirut bank last week to try to get access to his own savings. The man had threatened to set himself on fire if he couldn't get the bank to release his money, which he said he needed for medical care for his father. The seven-hour ordeal ended with the gunman's surrender but not before the bank handed over some of the over $200,000 from the gunman's account. The standoff drew a crowd of protesters outside a sit-in in support of the hostage taker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: It also highlighted an economic collapse that has seen savings and pensions disappear because banks won't release the cash. Rami Rajeh was in that crowd outside the bank.

I want to start with what happened last week. I mean, it seemed like such a symbolic moment. Can you tell me why you were there and what you were thinking about what was going on inside that bank?

RAMI RAJEH: I think symbolism is just the word for what happened last week. I went down there just to show support and to be able to shed light on a chronic crisis that's, you know, been going on for at least 3 1/2 years now. This person symbolizes, you know, a segment of the population that has had their money locked in the bank. And, like, some news outlets labeled him as insane. On the other hand, most of the people who were a part of the sit-in felt that his reaction was normal.

FADEL: I mean, it isn't normal, Rami.

RAJEH: Right. It's an incident that sheds light on a crisis that has dragged where the ruling elite have shoved aside, you know, one proposal for a solution after the other. There have been four proposals that they have just put to death, and this is creating a lot of frustration. And one way that it manifests itself is in people taking matters into their own hands. This kind of atmosphere that we're living in where jobs are scarce so people are leaving, the people who leave are sending money back. And this money back is predominantly being used to pay for basic services. What he did was a symptom. I don't feel it was an out-of-context crime.

FADEL: It was a symptom of the crisis.

RAJEH: Yes.

FADEL: But can you talk about the reason he's being hailed as a hero and who people blame for the situation so many Lebanese find themselves in now?

RAJEH: I don't know - hero is - it's kind of a big title and word for this man to carry on his shoulders. And the reason I say that is because the next day, if you're a depositor that had money in hard currency, nothing changed for you.

FADEL: How is day-to-day life for you, for your friends, for your family?

RAJEH: On a personal level, I think our income has diminished in - not in nominal terms, but the purchasing power has diminished. And even if you're able to offset the inflation, there is a big part of your income that's now going towards things that, you know, you didn't usually have to spend so much money on. Running water, electricity, medical insurance - all of these bills have increased in two ways. Like, they're more expensive, and you're actually paying for less.

FADEL: And are you able to find things that you need for your daily life - medicine, food, you know, all the things that you need to function?

RAJEH: I cannot claim that food has been an issue. I mean, the prices have changed. If you want to, like, convert them into dollars, they haven't changed that much. But if you factor in people's incomes.

FADEL: Who make money in Lebanese lira.

RAJEH: Exactly. So we haven't had any shortage when it comes to basic foods such as pulses and rice and et cetera. There is an issue with medicine. It's common to hear patients, relatives or siblings looking for medication because nobody can find it, even if they have the money to pay for it.

FADEL: If you could just describe the day-to-day life and the way it's changed in Beirut, what's different about the city than two years ago, three years ago?

RAJEH: It's dark. It's not as clean. It's a city that has a lot of commercial places on the street level. Roughly speaking, you can see that half of those are empty. I feel you can sense the air of - I don't want to say despair, but there's a lot of anger, and there's a depression because it's lasted so long. There doesn't seem to be an end in sight. Even if this end in sight is a painful path, it's not even there. There's the safety issue. You have to convince yourself that it's OK to walk from point A to point B at night because the streets are all so dark.

FADEL: Now, you have two kids.

RAJEH: Yes.

FADEL: Can you talk about why you stay and what that means for your kids' life and for raising a family?

RAJEH: It's a grounding experience, and it could serve as a good experience for the kids to realize that they can't take everything for granted and not everything they want they can have. And it's OK for them to find - you know, to realize that this city needs a lot of work and they naturally compare cities now if they're ever abroad with home. For us, we don't really feel this is a bad thing. We're struggling, but we're not desolate. We're able to make ends meet. And so long as we feel today that we're not compromising their safety and their education, we're OK with staying.

FADEL: Rami Rajeh, speaking to us from Beirut, thank you so much for your time.

RAJEH: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.