Story #144. War from Two Perspectives: Scientist and Drone Operator in Action

April 14, 2024
Tymur Bedernichek is a soil ecologist who has experienced the war from two perspectives: as a soldier and as a researcher.

The lands so familiar to soil ecologist Tymur appeared in danger of being poisoned by the enemy's presence. To prevent this, he immediately addressed his territorial and technical knowledge and joined the military. But how he imagined a yet unimaginable war in those days did not come to life.

"I envisioned that the Russian offensive would start from Belarus. Thanks to my job, I was proficient in drone flying and could teach others, which was vital at the time as Ukraine lacked experienced drone operators. I also expected to be deployed to Volyn, the area I knew very well, with all its border territory and pathways. However, events unfolded differently."

By this, Tymur means that he had to spend a year and a half as a military drone operator in Donbas, the East of Ukraine, particularly Bakhmut-Lyman, which is on the opposite side of the country from Volyn.

However, he has still been performing the duties he intended to.

"My comrade Ruslan and I initiated an entire learning process during the first days of the war. We purchased computers at our own expense: he bought more, while I bought fewer, along with remote controls.

The initial training sessions were conducted using a DJI simulator, followed by practice on small DJI drones, and then on other types of drones. In fact, we trained numerous individuals to a basic level and a few to a fairly proficient level within a short period."

Before this, Tymur researched the influence of various animals on soil ecosystems. Specifically, he investigated the impact of large animals like seals, walruses, and deer on soil formation in polar and high-mountain environments. This job involved not only operating drones but also doing so in harsh meteorological conditions.

Therefore, the February escalation of the war couldn't have expected a better-prepared specialist than Tymur appeared to be.

Because Tymur understood the role he had to play from the very beginning, volunteering for the military did not feel like jumping over a precipice. Considering his skills, it was more like a natural transition, though he had never been to the war before.

To a certain extent, this built upon my earlier research regarding the impact of animals on soil. This time, the focus is on bipedal animals, and the scale of influence is somewhat broader. However, the fundamental essence remains unchanged, whether it's seals in Antarctica or Russian orcs in the steppes of Ukraine.

When at the front, Tymur observed certain processes, the consequences of which he had partly analyzed in labs. The nominal data materialized right before him in its full complexity.

"In the botanical garden where I work, we utilize a precise ICP-spectrometer that enables us to determine the content of around 20 chemical elements, including heavy metals, in a single soil sample.

We have collected extensive data on lead, chromium, cadmium, and other metals contamination of different soils in steppes. While we previously understood this to be a problem, the scale of military action was not as critical then. However, the situation has since changed."

Fighting in a war on the one hand and analyzing it from a scientific point of view on the other led Tymur to expand his field of study. The pages of yet-undiscovered harm brought by the combats left him no choice.

"We often hear about heavy metals, but, in my opinion, this is only one of the many problems we will face after the end of hostilities."

Since being officially demobilized, Tymur has worked on the issue of unexploded ordnance, which he has borne witness to many times himself.

"As a drone operator in Bakhmut, often under the fire from 2B9 Vasilek automatic 82 mm mortars, I would see the weapon fire four rounds almost simultaneously, but rarely with more than two of them detonating. Sometimes, only one out of the four rounds would explode."

Even though it is barely on the agenda now, this problem is far more serious than it seems, Tymur says.

Such a scale of danger has never existed before, in my opinion. The enemy is using millions of very old artillery rounds. We also used them when we had them in our warehouses, but now we use new artillery and mortar shells from our Western allies.

It would not be so harmful if this were all happening on some neutral territory allocated exclusively for waging the war. However, these are Ukrainian lands, where BM-21 "Grad" abandoned ordnance, mortar shells, cluster munitions, and other undiscovered explosives now rest. 

This presents a dangerous level of unpredictability for those who traverse these territories, whether pedestrians, farmers working their fields, or scientists collecting soil samples.

"The velocity of the artillery shells and mortar rounds directly correlates with its ability to penetrate the ground. Consequently, we encounter a scenario where regions of intense combat may be strewn with surface-laid anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, while beneath this layer lie vast quantities of unexploded ordnance."

The tentacles of war are not only burying themselves deep in the soil but are also poisoning it.

"TNT, the most prevalent explosive in warfare, has potent toxic properties. While not as potent a pollutant as TNT, hexogen also exhibits toxic characteristics. Other common explosive compounds are found in detonators. As detonations are often incomplete, soil and surface water are contaminated by partially detonated artillery ammunition fragments."

It's not that Tymur had been keeping all this information in mind during his military service. He has delved into these matters since resuming his research work. While on the frontlines, there were merely some flickers to remind him of the past.

"When I saw signs of the Nature Reserve Fund of Ukraine, something clicked within me. This feeling intensified as we entered Holy Mountains National Nature Park. I had worked there for an extended period. During the war, I witnessed the devastation of this area firsthand. It was utterly destroyed, terribly so."

These revelations took place when Tymur did not have to take care of his own and his comrades' safety, of course, which is the basic mission of any soldier.

Tymur has since received his discharge from military service and returned to his previous life as a researcher at M. M. Gryshko National Botanical Garden. However, since his worlds have already been merged, he continues to be tied to the war.

Tymur regularly goes to the front to train more drone operators and manufactures and tests certain drone devices in combat himself.

A view of the East of Bakhmut from the drone, January 28, 2023.
A view of the East of Bakhmut from the drone, January 28, 2023.

Yet, with Tymur, it is not the case of a serviceman who cannot get back to civilian life mentally. He can, only he would not feel okay with that if he did.

"I will be very happy to stop working for the war when there is no longer any need for it. But as of now, I have a certain responsibility."

The scientific work Tymur is now doing also relieves him a bit as it is directly connected to the war and provides useful data for demining processes. Thus, Tymur's top priority is clear.

Lisa Dzhulai
Journalist at UkraineWorld