September 17, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Adrienne Vogt and Matt Meyer

Updated 3:10 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022
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10:54 a.m. ET, September 17, 2022

What CNN saw on the ground at a mass burial site in Izium

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón, Kostyantin Gak, Brice Laine, Jonny Hallam, Brad Lendon, Tim Lister, Yulia Kesaieva, Maria Avdeeva, Victoria Butenko and Ivana Kottasová

Individual graves are seen throughout the site, some with names and numbers handwritten on the wooden crosses. One grave CNN saw had the number as high as 398.
Individual graves are seen throughout the site, some with names and numbers handwritten on the wooden crosses. One grave CNN saw had the number as high as 398. (Natalie Gallon/CNN)

Even the heavy rainfall couldn’t erase the smell of death in the pine forest in Izium on Friday afternoon, as Ukrainian investigators worked their way through a mass burial site found in the eastern Ukrainian city after its recapture from Russian forces.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said at least 440 graves were found in the city in recent days. The country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that some of the bodies found in Izium showed “signs of torture,” blaming Russia for what he called “cruelty and terrorism.”

When CNN arrived to the mass burial site on Friday afternoon, officials were transporting body bags, including one that appeared to be holding something very small, into a refrigerated truck.

Most graves at the burial site are individual graves, with wooden crosses placed at the head of the dirt mounds. Some with names and numbers handwritten on them. One had a number as high as 398. Another with the name of an 82-year-old man. One official at the site told CNN that investigations would have to determine when these people died.

Further down in the forest lies what appeared to be a former military position, with tank positions dug deep into the ground.

A policeman at the scene told CNN that the spot is a mass grave where 17 bodies were found.

“Here are civilian bodies and military ones further along,” Igor Garmash, an investigator at the scene said of the specific part of the site he was examining, pointing to a location nearby.
“Over 20 bodies have been examined and sent for further investigation,” he told CNN.

Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves discovered at Izium were “fresh,” and that the corpses buried there were “mostly civilians.”

An Izium resident living across the street from the mass burial site told CNN the Russians first hit a nearby city graveyard with an airstrike and then moved in.

“They brought their special machines. They dug some trenches for their vehicles. We only heard how they were destroying the forest,” Nadezhda Kalinichenko told CNN.

She said she tried not to go out during the time the city was under the Russian occupation because she was too scared.

“When they left, I don’t know if there was fighting or not. We just heard a lot of heavy trucks one night a week ago,” she said.

Some background: Izium was subject to intense Russian artillery attacks in April. The city, which sits near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important hub for the invading military during five months of occupation. Ukrainian forces took back control of the city on Saturday, delivering a strategic blow to Russia’s military assault in the east.

9:03 a.m. ET, September 17, 2022

Biden met with families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan

From CNN's Maegan Vazquez, Kaitlan Collins, Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler, Abby Phillip and Sam Fossum

Brittney Griner (left) and Paul Whelan
Brittney Griner (left) and Paul Whelan (Reuters)

US President Joe Biden met separately with the families of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan at the White House on Friday, marking his first time personally meeting with them since their loved ones were detained in Russia.

Biden reiterated “his continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement on Friday.

“The President appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Brittney and Paul from those who love them most, and acknowledged that every minute they are being held is a minute too long,” Jean-Pierre said in the statement.

Some background: Griner was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry. She has been sentenced to nine years, along with a fine of about $16,400. Her legal team in Russia has appealed the sentence.

Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for more than three years after being convicted on espionage charges that he vehemently denies. He was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.