Bag Snatching in Beirut

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Purse-snatchers prey on women in tourist districts

By Cagil Kasapoglu

Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: “I was shouting, screaming and extremely struggling with this stranger’s arms squeezing my head, and his hands covering my mouth while he was trying to snatch my bag.” Though this statement may sound like the climax of a movie script, it was made by an expatriate who was violently mugged in Gemmayzeh.

Kristen Hope, 23, a freelance writer from France, told The Daily Star that she was attacked in a staircase of the Beirut district of Gemmayzeh as she was walking back home after a busy Friday night in May 2009.

“I was alone and walking down to street, then I noticed someone approaching from my right hand side. I thought that he was one of the inhabitants going into one of the apartments where I was passing by, but all of a sudden he trapped me with his arms and covered my mouth.”

“He pushed my body down toward the ground. He tried to grab my bag but I had it crossed over my body. He could not manage to get anything but scratched my neck with a sharp object that I assume to be a key. I was struggling, shouting and there was nobody to help me. After a few minutes, I heard a loud noise like a window shuttering and then he left running away,” said Hope. She added being alone on a Friday night should not have been a reason or justification for the assault in a touristic city like Beirut.

Because she did not have any evidence of the attack, apart from a tiny scratch on her neck, she felt reluctant to report her case to the police. With the start of the summer tourist season, Beirut witnesses an escalation of bag snatching cases, especially in commercial and touristic areas. The assaults, targeting mainly foreign women, beg the question: “How safe is Beirut for women travelers and residents who just wish to enjoy the city’s nights and days?”

Another victim, Sabrina, 27, a visiting accountant from Italy was attacked in June 2009. She was alone walking down to Al-Manara from Hamra to meet her friends for a Saturday night dinner around 8 in the evening. Then all of a sudden, a motorcycle rider grabbed her bag and drove straight on at maximum speed. Fortunately, the bag fell down due to high speed.

“I was furious and extremely scared when they pulled my bag from my shoulder. They were two on a bike and they approached me from my back without me even realizing how close they were. After grabbing my bag, they drove extremely fast and dropped my bag,” she told The Daily Star, adding that she did not go to police station because she could not copy the number of the bike’s license plate.

Among the three victims interviewed by The Daily Star only one person, a 25-year-old traveler from Germany, who wished to remain anonymous, said she brought the case to a police station in Gemmayzeh, where she was attacked on a Tuesday night in May at around 9 in the evening. Her case is one of several motorcycle robberies that have occurred in a street parallel to Gemmayzeh’s busiest bar avenue.

“I did not even hear him approaching me. He slowly grabbed my bag and ran away. I lost everything, my credit cards, money, camera and cell phone. I felt lucky that I was not carrying my passport with me,” she told The Daily Star. She added that she went straight to the police station afterward to report the incident, although her bag was never returned.

Beirut, one of the busiest cities in the Middle East, was named the number one Place to Visit in 2009 by The New York Times and was also listed as one of the top ten liveliest cities in the world by the Lonely Planet list of the top 10 cities for 2009. In light of these worldwide rankings spreading the fame of Beirut abroad, security forces say they are doing their best to provide for visitors’ safety.

“We increased the level of patrolling and conveying in busy districts of Beirut,” said Major Joseph Moussallem, an Internal Security Forces (ISF) officer.

“We are taking any possible precautions to prevent such attacks from occuring in our town,” he said. According to him, since the beginning of 2009, the security forces have confiscated 9,715 motorbikes that were not officially registered. “We give the owners a 48-hour of legalization period, and after completion of this period, the remaining unregistered bikes are been destroyed,” Moussallem said, adding that since January 19, around 10,000 bikes have been destroyed.

Despite the precautions taken by ISF, the number of cases is likely to increase during the summer time. According to a Pick-Pocketing Statistics report issued by the ISF, the number of filed cases from April 2009 till June 2009 proved to be decreasing compared to the first quarter of the same year.

However, the ratings presented only reflect the cases that have been officially filed and registered by the ISF, which do not comprise the unreported assaults.

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