“It’s a place filled with memories. Vorzel, Irpin and Bucha, the forests and the fresh air. During a recent visit to Irpin, the 64-year old environmental scientist said that this was a place of refuge.
Bondarenko felt anxious on the hour-long journey from Kyiv to Irpin, a trip that he has made many more times over the decades. He said, referring specifically to Russian troops, “This is my first time I’m returning since our brothers visited’ Irpin.”
Apart from the human toll, Russian forces also caused extensive destruction to the landscape: scorched earth and forest floors were ravaged by missiles. Trees were cut down and removed, while abandoned military equipment litters their ground. Many of the neat houses are in ruin; the green spaces and woodland around them are forbidden.
Anzhelika Kolomiec is Bondarenko’s friend and lives in Irpin. She told CNN that authorities have banned people entering the woods. “We have beautiful forest here, but this will not be any walks, there’ll be no mushroom picking, there won’t even be berries. She said that we are not allowed to enter because of unexploded missiles and mines.
Moschun has a number of craters that were created by shelling.
While the world is focused on the human suffering caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, environmental experts in Ukraine keep a close watch on the damage it has done to the environment, in an effort to repair it as quickly as possible and to seek reparations.
The destruction of forests in Irpin and the mining of them is just one example.
Satellite images show large areas of eastern and south Ukraine being engulfed by wildfires that have been sparked by explosions. This is compounded by the fact that the army, forest managers and emergency services are unable to reach them. The smoke from these fires is polluting our air.
Ukraine’s fertile soil is being contaminated by heavy metals and other potentially toxic substances leaking from missiles and military equipment.
Groundwaters are being polluted by sprayed fuel, and ecosystems are being destroyed by tanks and other heavy-tech weapons. All of these are effects that will last for decades after the war has ended.
Many people might not consider nature a priority, not right now, as Ukraine’s future is at risk and people are dying daily in the conflict.
“When you see the atrocities committed against humanity, the people being tortured, raped and killed, it is natural not think about the environmental impacts,” Natalia Gozak (executive director of the Center for Environmental Initiatives, Kyiv) said.
“So it’s our job to pay attention, ensure that these types crime are also considered a criminal, and that Russia pays for everything — not just for killing people but for our future and impacting on our future wellbeing.”
Bondarenko was a participant in the battle of Kyiv in March. In the first days of war, he and his son joined the Territorial Defense Force, a mostly volunteer section of Ukraine’s armed forces.
He was released from duty due to his old age and is slowly resuming his environmental work. He wants Ukraine ready to begin rebuilding in a smart, sustainable manner when the war ends.
He stated that “we are facing a much greater crisis now and must put aside all other things, although I believe very soon we’ll return to the environment agenda and we need to start thinking about it now.”
Experts such as Bondarenko or Gozak are also trying raise awareness about the dangers arising from environmental damage.
Bondarenko is a nuclear scientist by training. He has spent much of his career working in the Chernobyl area on environmental safety. After Russian troops invaded Chernobyl, the risk of nuclear contamination is very real. They also targeted Europe’s largest nuclear power station in Zaporizhzhia, which is located in southern Ukraine.
Wim Zwijnenburg is the leader of the Humanitarian Disarmament Project at PAX in the Netherlands. He said that international organizations are now paying more attention to the environmental effects of armed conflict.
He stated, “What we saw in Iraq or Syria was that environmental pollution can pose serious risks to the health and well-being of people.”
“But no one was paying any attention to it. Everyone thought the environment was something you know. This was true for people like bee-huggers and people who like butterflies and bees. However, the truth is that people can be exposed to toxic residues of war, chemical materials from bombs and factories, and other types of hazardous chemicals.
These past experiences led to environmental scientists and humanitarian organisations creating and using databases that list sites known to contain hazardous material.
They can now cross-check their database to estimate the impact on the surrounding ecosystems when they receive information about an attacker.
The Center for Environmental Initiatives has created an interactive map showing all the incidents in Ukraine. It breaks down each type of damage by type, including radioactive and chemical contamination, hazardous livestock waste, and degradation of land or marine ecosystems.
“During these massive attacks tons of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals, including uranium get into the soil,” Olena Kravchenko (executive director of Environment People Law), an environmental think tank based in Lviv.
She pointed out that the pollution caused by large amounts of weapons, explosives, and other types of weapons as well as discarded military technology are not the only ones. Mass burials that are not considered for environmental safety can lead to long-term soil and ground water contamination. Russia was accused by Ukraine of burying war criminals in mass graves dug quickly.
In situations where resources are very limited, the shared monitoring system can help to set priorities.
Zwijnenburg stated that most environmental damage can be repaired after conflict resolution, but that there are 5-10% of cases where experts are required.
Sometimes, the damage might not be immediately apparent.
According to the Ternopil Regional State Administration, some of the debris from the Russian missile that was shot down by the Ukrainian army over the Kremenets District in western Ukraine last month fell on an agricultural facility.
Although the impact site was cleared up in a few hours, the poisonous substances that leaked during this incident remained in soil and water for several days, according the State Ecological Inspectorate from Polissya District.
People from the villages surrounding were told not to consume water from their wells. A few days later, dead fish were reported to have been found in a river some miles away.
The State Ecological Inspectorate in Polissya District measured river ammonium levels and found that they were 163x higher than what is considered safe.
In the forest of Irpin lies an abandoned Russian armoured vehicle.
Conflict is also affecting the animal population. Experts claim that the unique habitats of the Azov sea in southern Ukraine are being irreparably destroyed by Russia’s continued bombardment of the area with missiles, bombs, and other weapons.
Zinoviy Petrovich (head of Kinburn Spit Reserve) stated that the precious perennial forests and salt marshes of the Kinburn Spit Reserve in Mykolaiv were on fire for more then a week. The unique habitats were destroyed.
CNN was told by Petrovich that the fires were started by exploding missiles. He also said that it is difficult to extinguish them due to the continued shelling in the region. He said that another reason was a lack in equipment and a shortage of fuel for firetrucks.
Many bird species nest in the Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park, near Odesa. CNN was told by Ivan Rusiev (a biologist and head of the scientific section of the park), that most birds couldn’t nest this year.
Rusiev estimates that Russian troops have dropped around 200 bombs in the park.
“All living things feel the impact of the aggressive war,” he stated, adding that the few birds who have survived to have chicks are now unable feed them properly. Rusiev said the area is well-known for its dalmatian and white pelicans. The peacetime population was approximately 1,500. “Now there’s only a handful,” he stated.
Rusiev stated that the sudden rise in submarine and warship numbers in the Black Sea is causing more harm. He said that he found dead dolphins at the shore from low frequency sonars.
Looking for reparations
Environmental activists and scientists have already begun to collect evidence of the damage done to nature by the war. They hope that they will be able to use this information in the future.
“When victory is ours” [the Russians]Rusiev stated that we will be able count the true damage and present it the barbarians who trampled upon us.”
Save Dnipro, an environmental NGO, has created a chatbot, software that simulates human-to–human conversation, to make it easier for people to access information on pollution and report war crimes. They are compiling the information and factchecking against open source sources. However, the authorities will verify the information and conduct an investigation.
But getting war reparations to ecological damage is a difficult task. Zwijnenburg stated that the international law currently in force sets a high standard for ecological damage.
“To reach the threshold at which governments can be held responsible for environmental damage, it must be severe and long-term damage to environment before you can say it’s a crime of war.” He stated that the only instance when this threshold was exceeded was in 1991 when Iraq set fire on hundreds of oil-wells in Kuwait.
As part of $52.4 billion in war reparations, the United Nations Compensation Commission ordered Iraq’s payment to Kuwait of $3 billion for the environmental damage that it caused during the 1990 invasion.
Many activists are also concerned about the possibility of further damage being done in the name and glory of the war effort.
The war has caused the Ukrainian national watchdogs to suspend their environmental protection work. CNN’s Kravchenko said that this could lead to the exploiting of national resources.
“We know that Ukrainian foresters are reducing the forest, and the explanation is it’s for the army’s benefit. But is it to meet the army’s demands or to combat corruption in the forest sector? She said that the environment is vulnerable to all sides.
Nature is slowly regaining its strength in Irpin. The wreckage of a Russian armored vehicle is visible, but green shoots are starting to emerge from the tree. The lilacbushes growing outside of homes along the forest road are full of color.
The large exodus from the capital, coupled with severe fuel shortages, has paradoxically led to better air quality than it was in years.
Bondarenko stated that nature is, as we like to say, the “poor sister”. We think of nature last. First, we think about ourselves and the lives of our loved one and friends. Next, we think over our homes and jobs. Finally, we think about nature.
He said, “I believe that we have a chance to make major changes in our attitude towards the environment, energy, and our use of natural resources, despite the war.”
The Irpin River is the source of the town’s name. It flows through the region and then flows into the Dnipro.
Bondarenko stated, “The river played a significant role in the defense and defense of Kyiv.” “Our armed force destroyed bridges, and were forced by dams to flood Irpin Riverbed to stop invaders crossing it on pontoon bridges. They came to Kyiv.”
Reporting was contributed by Oleksandra Olchman in Kyiv as well as Julia Presniakova from Lviv.